Carefor's transformational shift during a time of great change
Few aspects of our society evoke the response that healthcare does. It affects us all without regard for age, financial circumstances, skin color or religious beliefs. The creation of a system that satisfies the needs of all who use it is the elusive quest of all who are part of it. Carefor is no exception. While we don’t serve everyone in Eastern Ontario, as one of the largest not-for-profit health and community services organizations within the Champlain Region, our client base is broad and diverse. More than this, the needs of our clients are among the most immediate and complex of anyone in our region. For this reason, the ways in which Carefor has grown and had to adapt in such times of change had to be done with deliberate intention. The costs of not doing so are too great.
Over the past three years as CEO, I’ve been focused on strengthening and positioning Carefor for a transformational shift in how health system partners work together in a new integrated system of care. With this goal in mind, I spent my early days in this role recruiting new leaders, engaging with key partners in the community and across the province and supporting the development of new strategic directions incorporating diverse stakeholder input that will help position Carefor for a successful future filled with growth opportunities and innovation. As a unique and diversified organization, offering a full range of home health and community-based services, and with health system transformation fast-approaching, there was no better time to demonstrate Carefor’s value as an integral partner for Ontario Health Teams.
With the creation of Ontario Health, we quickly mobilized in response to invitations from emerging health teams across the region. Fast forward several months, we are one of 11 convening partners with active contribution in an approved Ottawa Health Team/Équipe Santé Ottawa and a valued partner supporting several other teams in development and on their way towards approval. Reflecting back on this past year, I believe Carefor has experienced more change in one year than it has in its 100+ years of history serving people in our community. As CEO, I could not be more proud of the team at Carefor and our contributions in helping to inform and shape a new integrated, people-centred health care system in our community.
“The best view comes after the hardest climb” has become my living mantra these days. Just as we were settling into a new rhythm with health teams, the COVID-19 pandemic consumed the world’s attention, overwhelmed health systems, crippled the global economy and impacted our physical and mental health over the past number of months. This rate at which this virus has spread forced us all to retract and retreat within our own organizations to protect our people and safely provide much needed care and service to the most vulnerable members of society. In a matter of days, our focus shifted from operational growth and the formation of health teams to supply chain management and procurement of personal protective equipment to keep our staff and clients safe. As we approach the end of our third month of responding to COVID-19, Carefor’s values have been put to the test in this unprecedented time of uncertainty.
· Partnership. Working with government, funders, system partners, vendors, foundations and donors to ensure we have the right tools and resources to provide continued services.
· Respect. Respecting the safety and security of our people and those most at risk in this pandemic, our vulnerable seniors and those living with chronic health conditions.
· Innovation. Leveraging our creativity and resourcefulness to provide care in new and different ways to support those living with limited means and support systems while in isolation.
· Responsiveness. Responding without hesitation; thinking fast on our feet and acting quickly to maintain confidence in our people, our systems and our partners.
· Excellence. Striving for the best, regardless of what curve balls are thrown our way; delivering exceptional quality of care and services and in that vein, continuing to be the provider of choice for people and partners alike.
Guiding the direction in which Carefor operates, these five core values keep me and my team focused and connected to what’s most important while motivating us to sustain, innovate and expand our programs and services in the community. Having said that, leading a team of 1600 health care employees through a global health pandemic is not something I had anticipated in my early tenure as Carefor’s CEO. Over the past three months, I’ve learned more about crisis management and organizational resilience than I’ve experienced in my 20+ years as a leader. Unfortunately, there is no one playbook that guides you when confronted with an unprecedented crisis. While I’ll be the first to admit that Carefor’s response to the pandemic has not been without its challenges, I believe the secret to our teams’ success in these first three months of the pandemic can be attributed to: 1) leading with a calm and steady focus; 2) acting quickly and decisively; 3) communicating clearly and often; 4) taking care of oneself and the team; and 5) looking for opportunities to innovate.
Lead with a calm and steady focus: during times of uncertainty, staff quickly look to their leaders for a calm response and clear plan of action. In the early days of the pandemic, like others in health care, our team launched quickly into emergency response mode with a focus on staff and client safety, while sustaining our business operations. Supported by daily huddles, where we discuss such things as the number of cases of suspected/confirmed COVID-19, staffing availability, program status and closures, isolation of residential clients, etc., our goals were achieved due to creativity, persistence and a “can do” attitude. Well-chaired huddles with a focused structure and action plans enabled us to efficiently and effectively manage incoming public health and Ministry directives to make quick decisions.
Act quickly and decisively: COVID-19 hit the world hard and fast this past March. With no time to spare, this element of speed drove our team into fight or flight mode as we mobilized to protect our people, our clients/residents and our organization. At the beginning of the pandemic, we spent long days and evenings interpreting public health and Ministry directives, moving people to remote work arrangements with appropriate technology, procuring PPE from diverse sources, setting up safe workspaces at client homes and in clinics, in our hospice and at our retirement facilities. Each of these decisions required quick action, but only after careful review of the evidence and consideration of the implications. With people’s health on the line, the motivation to think quickly, ethically and decisively has never been more important. I am convinced that Carefor had and continues to have low rates of COVID-19 cases among our people due to our early responsiveness, our collaborative approach and our ability to act quickly and decisively in our actions.
Communicate clearly and often: in the home and community care business, communication can be a real challenge as the majority of staff work remotely, travelling from client home to client home with very little downtime to catch up while in transit. Add to that, many of our staff have multiple employers requiring different information technology and mobile communication tools. Our goal over the past several weeks has been simple – communicate clearly and often. Our communications team was central to our efforts, implementing a multi-pronged approach to getting our key messages to our people in several ways. Using email, video, virtual meetings and an intranet site designed for COVID-19, our staff have received weekly direction, resources and support from their leaders. Although at times staff have sought answers to questions more quickly than we are able to respond to through this pandemic, we have maintained an open, transparent and thoughtful approach to communicating those decisions that have been made in addition to the information and directives available to us from public health, Ontario Health and other credible sources.
Take care of yourself and your team: the physical, mental and emotional toll that COVID-19 has taken on people all over the globe is unprecedented. Moving into week 12 of balancing the significant pressures at work and challenges of home life in this time of uncertainty is draining. As we hear about restrictions being lifted, there is a degree of fear and concern circulating about a second wave coming this fall. I recognize the toll that this pandemic has had on my own resilience over the past few months. As a leader tasked with taking care of my team, I must make it a personal priority to be that role model that others desire to follow. Practicing self-care is key to managing long-term, high stress situations with a calm, collected and strategic response. My mission at this stage of the pandemic is to support my team by encouraging them to slow down, rest and re-build those energy reserves over the summer months in order to be ready for whatever situation comes our way in the fall.
Look for new opportunities: I love great quotes… one of my favorites is “challenge = opportunity,” so much so that it stays on my office wall as a visible reminder. Short, simple and undeniably true in all scenarios. We know that innovation evolves from times of struggle, strain and testing of societal, workplace and industry norms. Humans are like all other species on this planet; when tested by crisis we generally rise to the occasion and find alternative ways to evolve and grow. In healthcare, we’ve likely witnessed more innovation and change in the last twelve weeks of this pandemic than we have seen in a decade. Despite new partnerships and action teams that have evolved over the past year within emerging Ontario Health Teams, the health system continued to struggle with concepts like true team-based and virtual care. With the emergence of a global pandemic, merely weeks later health care agencies are mobilizing to work collectively to deal with COVID-19 and deliver virtual health care services like never before. In our own organization, we have partnered with aTouchAway by Aetonix Systems Inc. to connect residents with their loved ones, while in isolation. We are preparing to pilot a virtual care and remote home monitoring program for use with clients. Another great example of innovation is our efforts to develop a ‘working from home’ culture at Carefor. As a not-for-profit organization, our mission is focused on providing services at low cost. This has become even more critical as our organization continues to grow. COVID-19 impacted us at a time when we were gearing up to explore new physical space options forcing us to focus on quickly relocating office staff to their homes. Within days, we procured equipment and had people working effectively from the safety and security of their homes. We are now taking advantage of this opportunity to rethink and inform our space plans for the future.
None of these five success factors would be possible without a supportive and engaged board of directors and a strong, dedicated and resilient leadership team; each bringing their own knowledge, expertise and energy to the table. I feel very fortunate that I am surrounded by a group of passionate people who wasted no time mobilizing into action at the first sign that the pandemic would impact us here in Eastern Ontario. Finally I would be remiss not to mention the quality and commitment of our staff at Carefor. Leadership through a crisis is made easier when you’re working with a team that is as resilient, professional and compassionate as Carefor’s.
Climbing this proverbial ‘mountain’ over the past several months has been both challenging and rewarding for us in many ways. My success in leading our team through this first wave of the pandemic is undoubtedly attributed to our steadfast commitment to Carefor’s core values; values that act as our moral compass and guide our efforts forward. However, leading in the face of a crisis requires more than just values, it requires a calm and steady focus, quick and decisive actions, ongoing clear communication, a healthy and mindful approach as well as openness to new opportunities. It also requires a sense of collaboration and teamwork that goes beyond typical levels. Organizational and personal resiliency is the name of this game and will continue to be the goal as we support our people and our clients through this pandemic. As we continue our climb, we must maintain our focus, keep ourselves healthy and take in the view when we reach the summit.
[Photo Credit: Ashley Fraser/Postmedia]