A version of this article was published in the Edmonton Journal on 27 May 2015.
Certainly, it can be argued that the Alberta health care system has its challenges. Efficiency and the cost effectiveness of health care services were a key issue in the most recent election, and reining in health care costs has been a challenge of many previous budgets.
As someone who specializes in strategy, change and complex problem solving, there are challenges there that I would love to contribute to solving. But just because there may be dysfunction or inefficiency evident at the higher levels of the health care hierarchy doesn’t mean that it is replicated on the front line.
It has also been argued that the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton suffers its own inefficiencies and dysfunction. The building is old, there are maintenance issues and major renovations are long past due. But bricks and mortar does not solely make a hospital, not by a long shot. It is the people who work there day in and day out that make a hospital function, who bring it to life, and who are its beating heart. And based upon my experiences there this week, the people of Misericordia are truly spectacular.
I presented myself at the emergency department of Misericordia on Wednesday evening. Over the course of the previous few hours, what had been a relatively benign hernia had progressed from troubled to angry to insisting on being dealt with immediately. Unfortunately, it did this while I was on a plane, flying to Edmonton for a planned ten days of work and meetings. By the time my plane landed, my only plan was to get myself to an emergency department as quickly as possible. Current wait times and previous personal experience pointed me to Misericordia, and I arrived at shortly after 6pm.
I was triaged immediately, saw a doctor within 20 minutes and was being x-rayed by 7pm. 7:50pm saw me back in a consultation room, being advised that I would be referred to a surgeon who would likely want to proceed quickly. How quickly was revealed less than 15 minutes later, in another consultation that ended with the surgeon stating, “I want him in an operating room within the hour.” That triggered a rapid series of events that ended with my waking up in a recovery room shortly after 11pm.
If your measure of success is responsiveness, then without question the hospital performed. But that really isn’t the measure of my experience, though. What was so impressive was not just that the emergency was responded to quickly, or that my health care needs were met. It was the people that I encountered at every step along the way. Their care, their consideration and their attentiveness were universally exceptional. The people of Misericordia didn’t just worry about my physical needs, but my emotional ones as well. The idea of putting the patient first wasn’t just a slogan on a wall, but a genuinely lived concept.
Arriving at the hospital was entirely unsettling. I was 3,000 kms away from home, in a city I no longer live in, about to undergo surgery. At every stage of what could have been a terrifying experience, people were attentive, considerate and reassuring. My anaesthesioligist was a model of comfort and warmth. As I was rolled into the operating room, I was introduced by name to every single member of the OR team, despite the fact that I would be unconscious within minutes, and likely never meet any of them again. The nurse in the recovery room reassuringly held my hand when I most needed human contact.
I had wonderful interactions with nearly every person I met in the hospital, whether they were delivering food, cleaning the room or waking me in the night to check my vitals. What is truly impressive is how much the people of Misericordia genuinely work as a team. They are all individuals; they have real lives, real ambitions, very real professional challenges and no doubt struggle with problems, disagreements and personality conflicts, just like any other work place. I never saw any of that, however. At every turn, I saw people who cared. Who understood their role and did it as well as they could. Who interacted with me on a fundamentally human level while doing it, all the while being conscious of how what they did fit into the larger picture of my treatment and care.
My profession is helping organizations to perform effectively in complex environments. I have witnessed more organizations than I care to count who have struggled to instil team work, to align processes, to manage workloads and to deliver exceptional service. It is not an easy accomplishment by any measure, and more organizations get it wrong than get it right. They may have slogans or mission statements that talk about patient care or customer service, but it is a very different thing to witness it in action, consistently, across dozens of people working in a large, chaotic, intense and emotionally charged workplace. Misericordia gets it. The people who work there get it. The staff of Misericordia, individually—and especially collectively—are exceptional.
Co-operation, team work and collaboration like I witnessed this week does not happen by accident. It also doesn’t happen by force or diktat. It comes as a result of carefully thinking through process, structure and culture. But more importantly, it comes through intensively working on process, structure and culture. Talking, discussing, listening, questioning, challenging and negotiating to be able to create an approach that works, that makes sense and that delivers the results the organization cares about. It also requires an almost magical combination of organizational inspiration and personal responsibility to bring the behaviours into living, breathing life in a way that makes a difference.
The people of Misericordia deserve to know how exceptional they truly are. And Edmontonians deserve to know what an amazing hospital they have.