By Rachel Cox
The first thing Thea Sutton MS '14 would say to students entering the field of global health is, “don’t be too specific.” Being flexible and willing to try something different leads to enriching experiences.
Sutton thought she wanted to be a doctor when she first went to college, but her interest pivoted to improving health systems rather than direct care. She developed a passion for providing access to health care in rural areas, especially for indigenous populations in the US.
While an undergrad, Sutton researched the effect of arsenic in well water on mothers and babies in rural New England. During a subsequent job with the United Nations, she researched the rates of HIV among ethnic minorities in northern Thailand. When she felt called to continue her studies in global health, UCSF was one of the first places she looked.
Sutton started the GHS master’s program thinking she would go down one path—continuing to study epidemiology and arsenic exposure—but again she changed direction when she had the opportunity to complete her master’s capstone research at a hospital on the border of Navajo Nation in New Mexico. At Gallup Indian Medical Center, she conducted a quantitative analysis on their rate of readmissions (patients returning to the hospital within 30 days after discharge), partially in response to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) stipulation that hospitals drastically reduce their readmissions.
Her analysis was the first of its kind at the hospital serving a large Native American population. Sutton helped identify the risk factors for readmission to assist doctors in conducting a more thorough discharge with those patients most at risk. Although the ACA’s stipulation has since been amended, Gallup physicians still use her findings as a guide in their effort to provide better continuity of care for their patients and reduce readmissions.
She says her experience on the Navajo Nation was profound and fortified a vision of her dream job: to work for the Indian Health Service. She also became more aware of the important role that technology can play in improving access to healthcare in rural areas—such as wearable devices, remote tracking, telemedicine, and electronic medical records (EMR).
After graduating from the master’s program, Sutton spent a year working on EMR product development and user success for a startup company. She then was awarded a full scholarship to participate in Startup Institute, an entrepreneurial boot camp where she could explore translating her ideas into impact. She was recently hired by Genentech as part of the Applied Innovation Team and is currently working to improve the efficiency of early clinical trials.
Reflecting on the turns of her career path so far, Sutton says, “Each opportunity is a learning experience, and it’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it.” Although she knows the path can be winding, she has a clear vision: to direct technology and innovation for the Indian Health Service, working to improve health care access for the six million Native Americans. Her aspirational goal is to expand her scope and work for the World Health Organization on technology implementation for health care access in rural communities around the world.