Remembering our purpose to improve the patient experience


By Arden Krystal

Many years ago, when I was a young nurse in British Columbia working on a cancer ward, I learned my first lessons about commitment and serving with purpose. It wasn’t a fellow nurse or a doctor who I remember most, though I have worked with so many dedicated colleagues over the years who share this trait. No, it was a housekeeper as they were called back then, and she was probably completely unaware of the impact she had on developing and reinforcing the value system of this particular young nurse.

This employee, who I saw cleaning every day, was one of the hardest working people on our ward.  It wasn’t an easy job – our patients had leukemia and lymphoma and were all in private rooms. Because they were immunosuppressed, our standards were high.  We demanded a lot of all our staff. I noticed that this one housekeeper always went above and beyond in everything she did.  So I asked her what made her work so much harder than her colleagues did.  Her response was simple.  She said she cleaned with passion because she knew her patients’ lives depended on the quality of her work. It wasn’t just a “job.”  She understood that regardless of the role we play in the health system, we all contribute in some way to our patients’ experiences. She felt important.

Fast-forward several years and several role changes later and here I am in Ontario in my new role as president and CEO of Southlake Regional Health Centre.  My belief in serving with purpose is as strong as it’s ever been, but I have seen how challenging it can be for our staff to hold true to that value when they feel stressed in our busy and complicated work environments.


Catchphrases and initiatives such as “Patients First” and “Patient-Centred Care” are laudable in their intent to create the safest, highest quality experiences and outcomes for patients. In my experience, these taglines can carry with them some unintended consequences – subtle perhaps, but present none the less. For when we say someone or something is first, that means someone else is second. It infers a sense of competition for highest value. The reality is, we provide the best patient experiences, high-quality and great outcomes by employing great people. Everyone needs to know they are critical to this aim. They are not second, in fact they are the lynchpin.

I have been asked by many, much like my former colleagues who have recently relocated, to compare and offer insights about the differences in our provincial healthcare models. While there are pros and cons to each, I can honestly say that committed people can achieve great things in a less than perfect model, but the reverse – a great model without commitment, will never succeed. Managing increasing volumes of patients and keeping patients safe when services are not growing at the same rate is challenging.  This issue exists in every province, despite their structures.  Although we do need to make strategic investments in capital, technology and research to continue to make improvements, the most important resource we need to keep cultivating is our people.

Perhaps it’s my humble roots talking, but I believe that in addition to providing our staff and physicians with the tools they need to do their best work, we need to ensure they have ways to extract the value of the simple things, and conduct themselves in a way like that housekeeper, that brings deep satisfaction to both them and their patients.

Serving with purpose never goes unnoticed. It’s not just “nice to do” and it doesn’t go out of style. Each act reminds staff why they chose a career in healthcare and that their key role is to make a difference in the lives of patients and families.  At Southlake, my goal is to improve both the staff experience and the patient experience in an integrated way.


Patient satisfaction surveys at hospitals across Canada tell us the simplest things matter most to patients and families; and this is where we sometimes fall short. Communicating, listening and treating others with respect consistently ranks the lowest.  The irony is that these are the very things staff want from their leaders and organizations.

The solution is simple, but it’s not easy. It will require focus, leadership and behaviour change. Tackling this “soft” stuff is hard for some people, much harder than completing the most intricate technical procedures. But we have to get on it. Emphasis on the patient experience and patient engagement is evident in Accreditation Canada’s most recent standards and reflects a worldwide movement. I, for one, want Southlake to be on the front of that wave.

As we build our new five-year strategic plan, we will be getting started by engaging our community for their feedback on what matters most to them.  I suspect that in addition to diagnosing their health problems, providing cures, easing their pain and supporting them with end-of-life care, they will tell us to make sure we get the simple things right. Yes, healthcare is complicated. We need to keep racking our brains to solve those complicated problems.  We can’t let the simple things slide.

Arden Krystal is president and CEO, Southlake Regional Health Centre.