David Ostrow | March 21st, 2014
In my 41 years in health care, and especially in my past five as CEO of Vancouver Coastal Health, I have been struck by the amazing resiliency of our people. And just a few weeks away from retirement, I find myself wondering, “How do you get to be this way? How do you time and again respond quickly (and usually successfully) to change and keep going?”
Sure we make mistakes, but in this health authority I think a defining quality is that we are not afraid to falter. We are willing to try new things, to accept change, and to be ready to course correct – often in a very public way.
I think our recent participation in the Knowledge Network series about life in VGH Emergency Department is a good example of that. And before you dismiss this as a simple PR exercise, let me explain. When our medical teams at VGH agreed to allow cameras into the ED, this was ground breaking stuff; this was completely un-staged and unscripted. None of them really knew what would happen. The only guarantee was that our staff and physicians would respond to whatever came through the front doors and provide the best patient care possible…while the cameras rolled. Allowing that requires phenomenal self-confidence and inner strength and really, an unwavering sense that you and everyone around you is going to do the right thing.
I get the same feeling of awe when I think back to the documentary, 65 Red Roses, which told the story of Eva Markvoort, a remarkable young woman from New Westminster who died from cystic fibrosis at the age of 25. When she underwent her first double lung transplant at VGH in 2007, we knew she was a high risk case; there was no guarantee she would survive the surgery. And yet her care team agreed to welcome cameras into the operating room, largely based on the unspoken understanding that regardless of who was watching, everyone involved would do the right thing, whatever the outcome may be.
In both these cases, the presence of cameras made the stories more dramatic – partly because they allowed so many more people to share in the experience “first hand” – but really, the confidence and the resiliency these teams displayed play out every day across VCH. I see and hear of all of you “doing the right thing” under challenging circumstances and the watchful, worried eyes of patients, family members and sometimes, elected representatives.
In some industries, when change happens – when a team gets restructured, a program ends, or a funding model dries up – the response may be to give up, or perhaps to complain that the change is “unfair,” making it impossible to continue to do business. Did that ever even occur to you? Or if it did, did you really see it as barrier to stop providing patient care? I seriously doubt it.
More often than not, the response within VCH is on the spot brainstorming about what we might do differently to get the same or better outcomes. Of course we’re human and we feel the loss or the impact of change, but rather than being paralyzed, we respond. And we waste little time in spinning our wheels trying to come up with the perfect solutions; we understand the stakes, that we are in the business of caring for people – people who are at their most vulnerable – and so we move ahead. That’s resiliency.
But where does it come from? Without taking anything away from people on the front lines of care or administration, I’d like to believe that our leadership encourages you to be like this and to support you through all stages of it. As a leader myself, I fully expect mistakes to happen, but I don’t dwell on it. Instead I ask how one corrects for mistakes or unanticipated changes in a way that allows people to build on their successes, rather than failures. I think the majority of VCH leaders do this and as a result, we allow our employees to feel their worth as good, confident people. You can see and sense their resiliency, and hence, our organization’s ability to respond is palpable.
The people we serve consistently say that they don’t want more money (a.k.a. tax dollars) spent on health care, but they do want better services. On the surface that seems like an impossible proposition, but that’s only if health care keeps doing things the same way it has always done before while hoping for different outcomes. Some will do this – and they will fail.
But based on my experience, VCH is best positioned to rise to the challenge, to try something new, to change and to course correct – likely repeatedly – to meet the demand on our doorstep and to make best use of the talents, creativity, compassion, and yes, resiliency, of the people of VCH.
If you have felt what I have felt, or witnessed these unique qualities in your own teams and coworkers, I invite you to share your stories so we can celebrate them together. I’d consider it a parting gift.
In the meantime, it has been a privilege to serve you. I look forward to watching you rise to the next challenge…because I know you will.