Academic health sciences – Now more than ever!

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By Denis Roy

Last month, I retired as President and CEO of Health Sciences North (HSN) in Sudbury, bringing to a close a career that has spanned 45 years. It is a journey that has taken me from medical student, to graduate researcher, to nephrologist and finally to hospital administrator.

Along the way, I have worked with many wonderful and talented people: physicians, researchers, nurses, allied health professionals, support staff, hospital administrators, politicians, civil servants, and most importantly, patients.

My years as a hospital administrator, in particular the last 7.5 years at HSN, have reinforced a lot of what I believe about leadership.

Specifically, leadership and character are both revealed and proven in times of great challenge. Anyone can command a ship in calm seas. It’s quite another thing to have a firm, confident hand at the wheel when forces beyond your control are pulling you in different directions at the same time.

In stormy weather, you need a clear head, a clear focus, a clear direction, and a clear plan to get there. We need that leadership, now more than ever; it is hurricane season in health care.

Across Canada, hospitals – including my own – are struggling under the weight of demands for care. Patients are backed up in our EDs or placed in hallways and lounges. Beds are occupied by patients who would be better served in other settings, but can’t access the care they need in the community. It’s leading to longer waits for care, surgical cancellations, mounting frustration for patients and health care workers, and greater public scrutiny and criticism of governments and health care leaders.

Under this pressure, it is easy to lose perspective and clarity –  of your mission, strategic direction and plan.

When you’re being pitched by the waves, there is also the impulse and the political expediency to toss overboard things that don’t appear to be necessary to the situation at hand, such as research, teaching, and investments in innovative new technologies and approaches to care.

But these are the things you need in a time of crisis. What you don’t need is to weigh down your institution with outdated thinking and yesterday’s solutions.

The father of microbiology, Louis Pasteur, said it best when he said “Knowledge is the torch which illuminates the world.” It is the never-ending quest for new knowledge and innovation which lights the path for breakthroughs in health care. The urgent health care demands of our time serve as the catalyst for this quest, but they should never extinguish it.

I have seen this principle at work repeatedly at HSN. Here are just a couple of examples. For the past year, we have been in a constant state of overcapacity, with anywhere from 20 to 25 per cent of our beds occupied by Alternate Level of Care patients, most of whom are frail seniors. Yet we have devoted significant resources to the implementation of a novel model of care for frail seniors called 48/5. We monitor 5 key indicators within the first 48 hours of admission. As a result, we’re slowing and in some cases reversing the progression of frailty in seniors. It’s reducing both time spent in hospital and readmissions. We have also been conducting research into the effectiveness of a higher-dose flu vaccine for seniors, again with the goal of reducing frailty and hospital admissions due to complications from the flu. We are seeing positive results.

These improvements in front-line care would not have been possible had we not established a full-fledged research institute and recruited one of North America’s foremost experts on seniors’ health.  It was an investment in difficult times, but it is paying off for our patients and our staff.

We have also invested significant resources in expanding our capacity to accommodate and teach both medical learners and our existing clinicians. As a result, more medical learners than ever are spending time with us, and caring for patients while they do.

There are voices which say “This is not the right time for the frills of research, teaching, and technology. We need to focus on treating illness, not studying it!” I’m sure Pasteur faced the same criticism. But his quest for new knowledge led to breakthroughs in how we understand and treat illness and infectious disease to this day. Can you imagine a world without vaccination or pasteurization?

If now is not the right time for innovation, research and teaching, when is?

My time is done. I have fought the good fight. I have finished my race. For my colleagues who remain, I encourage you to stay clear, focused and unwavering in your mission and strategic goals. Let knowledge – through research and teaching – be the torch you carry to illuminate your path toward better health for the people you care for.

Denis Roy was the President and CEO of Health Sciences North. He retired last month.

 

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