Internal Medicine Physician
Contra Costa Health Services, Detention Health
In high school, Sonia Sutherland, MD, volunteered as a candy striper for her local county hospital, and since then has dedicated her whole career to helping her community and serving marginalized, underserved and minority populations.
Today, Dr. Sutherland is an internal medicine physician and the Medical Director of Detention Health at Contra Costa Health (CCH), where they provide care to 20,000 patients annually across four county jails. She also has served as Northern California’s physician for Hansen’s disease (leprosy), and provides direct patient care with respect and dignity to this unique population.
Many patients in detention centers come from some of the most marginalized communities and have experienced stigma simply because of who they are and what they may or may not have done. “Someone once said that working with this population is one tangible way to start dismantling the legacy of slavery and racial oppression,” said Dr. Sutherland. “My goal is to restore the justice-involved population so that they may reunite with family and break the generational cycle.”
Dr. Sutherland recognizes that it can be a tough and challenging environment at times, and understands that compassion and the care of staff are just as essential to the compassion and care for patients.
She is one of the founders and co-leads of the Wellness Team, which supports the wellness of 4,000 CCH employees. What started as a vision to address physician burnout in 2019, was later transformed during the COVID-19 pandemic to be inclusive of the interdisciplinary team and opened to all staff.
With her dedication to supporting staff resiliency and growth—and because educational activities enhance patient care–Dr. Sutherland has helped expand resident involvement through elective rotations in forensic psychiatry and substance use treatment.
“Dr. Sutherland has always said that she tries to provide the best possible care for the patients at Detention Health, as these patients are probably receiving their first medical care, or they may not always get the appropriate care when they leave,” said a colleague.
To promote a healing environment, Dr. Sutherland works extraordinarily long hours advocating for patients through her clinical, administrative, and collaborative work with custody and detention health staff, and external providers to ensure patients receive the highest level of safe quality care that is timely, equitable and compassionate. She also personally visits patients cell-side to provide care and follow-up information to their questions, rather than send a note via the deputy or nurse.
“For me, Detention is not a place of last resort. It is a place of hope, compassion and respect,” said Dr. Sutherland. “There is great opportunity to impact our communities by simply extending a helping hand to those on the edge.”