With grit and compassion, Davis drives quality improvements

July 1, 2017


Admired by her peers for her focus on safety and quality, and her innovative spirit, Susan L. Davis put patients first when she began her career as a nurse in a cardiothoracic intensive care unit and has continued to do so as she moved up the ranks in hospital administration.

Davis, senior vice president for Ascension's Gulf Coast Market, and president and chief executive of the Sacred Heart Health System in Pensacola, Fla., is a 2017 recipient of CHA's Sister Concilia Moran Award. The award has been presented annually since 1992 to individuals in Catholic health care recognized for creativity and breakthrough thinking that advances the ministry.

Susan L. Davis
Photo by Chris Ryan/© CHA

Among her many notable accomplishments to date, as president and chief executive of St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, Conn., from 2004-2012, Davis dramatically improved mortality rates by strengthening accountability for patient outcomes. Working through the Connecticut Hospital Association, she ignited a movement across all the state's hospitals to eliminate preventable patient harm. She did so in part by promoting disclosure of medical errors to patients and the public.

Her efforts contributed to the passage in 2010 of a state law that requires expanded public disclosure of medical errors by hospitals and surgery clinics and guarantees that patients have access to information about their care. Then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill in a ceremony at St. Vincent's, as Davis looked on.

"Health care is a relational job, and high reliability and patient safety fits so well with our values of integrity, humility and reverence," Davis said. "Yet in health care we weren't always willing to sit down and talk with patients and their families about our mistakes. I feel very blessed to have worked with people at St. Vincent's and Ascension who helped to develop a high reliability program that became the model for programs adopted by other hospitals in Connecticut."

Bill Hoey is vice president and chief mission integration officer for St. Vincent's, he said it's a testament to Davis' credibility, influence and foresight that she was able to convince hospital chief executives to commit the labor and money necessary to implement the error reporting systems in their hospitals, let alone do something that would expose information that could put their facilities in a bad light.

Lucinda I. Ames, St. Vincent's mission services and workplace spirituality coordinator, noted that, under Davis, St. Vincent's became a pioneer of patient and family advisory councils, ensuring that the hospital's governance structure benefits extensively from patient and family member participation.

Caregiver's instincts
"Susan's leadership was transformative for the state of Connecticut, our association, other hospitals and for me personally," said Jennifer Jackson, a nurse who is president and chief executive of the Connecticut Hospital Association.

"Working with Susan reminded me that, regardless of the role we play, we still are caregivers, and we still have the power to touch patients' lives even if we're not literally at the bedside," Jackson said. "Susan had such an impact on the work we do here (at the hospital association), and her legacy lives on."

Davis is shown with a young patient in this 2013 photo. She’s been active in the planning of the new Studer Family Children’s Hospital slated to open on the campus of Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Fla., in 2019.

While at St. Vincent's, Davis also helped obtain a grant of $160,000 from Ascension to create The Hope Dispensary of Greater Bridgeport, which opened in 2011. In 2016, the dispensary filled more than 8,000 prescriptions at no cost, providing uninsured and low-income patients with medications worth more than $1.8 million. Davis also developed a clinical partnership with Quinnipiac University's new medical school to work toward addressing the shortage of primary care physicians in the area.

Davis oversaw the largest building project in St. Vincent's history, which involved implementing a $160 million master facility plan and a $60 million capital campaign. It included the construction of the Elizabeth M. Pfriem SWIM Center for Cancer Care and a tripling in size of the Michael Daly Center Emergency and Trauma Care tripled in size. Davis led the expansion of urgent care centers in the Bridgeport area too, and she launched the most ambitious technology upgrade in the hospital's history.

Building connections
Davis' responsibilities for the Bridgeport and Pensacola markets overlapped for a few years as she transitioned into her current assignment.

At Sacred Heart, she's been a driver behind planning and construction of the new Studer Family Children's Hospital, currently going up on the campus of Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. The building will allow for the expansion of specialty pediatric and maternity services on the campus and the consolidation of inpatient pediatric care. Ascension, Sacred Heart's parent company, contributed $55 million to the construction, and Davis is working to raise $30 million in philanthropy to better serve families from across the Gulf Coast. The capital campaign has raised about $23 million so far.

"Susan's passion is so evident," said Quint Studer, board chair of the Sacred Heart Health System. Studer first met Davis in Connecticut while working as a health care consultant.  The Studer Family Children's Hospital is named for his family.

"I admire her grit — and by 'grit' I mean her relentless spirit to get things across the finish line. This ranges from making sure a person gets that appointment, personally connecting a worried person to a doctor, to starting a kidney transplant program."

The first kidney transplant in Northwest Florida was performed at Sacred Heart Hospital in March.

Live and learn
Davis was raised by her father, Lee Davis. He found a mentor to guide her when she was growing up. It was a formative experience, one that Davis has passed on. At St. Vincent's, Davis mentored young executives and two young women at inner city high schools. She also helped recruit hundreds of mentors by serving as a United Way Mentor Champion. In that role, Davis recorded public service announcements, wrote op-ed pieces and led hospital tours.

At Sacred Heart since 2012, Davis has served as a mentor in a weekly program called Take Stock in Children, which focuses on minority students.

Another experience from Davis' personal life also led to an important health education project. In January 2016, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer. "I'm very good at taking care of other people, but maybe not so good at taking care of myself," Davis said. "There is a history of breast cancer in my family, but I kept cancelling mammogram appointments because I was busy, even though I work down the hall from where the mammograms are done."

After undergoing a successful surgery, Davis became convinced that other women also put off the screening. "I thought this was an opportunity for them to learn from my experience. I wrote a letter to the staff, and now women stop me in the hall to tell me they got a mammogram because of me." Davis kept staff updated about her diagnosis and experience and she was featured in Sacred Heart's 2016 breast cancer awareness campaign.

Davis grew up in New Jersey and New York. After earning an associate's degree in nursing, she received a bachelor of science in nursing from Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y., and a master's degree in nursing and doctorate in organizational development, both from Columbia University in New York City. She is married to Richard Henley, a consultant, and they live in Gulf Breeze, Fla.


Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.