The legendary Alberta advantage is cited here in everything from tax rates to relative amounts of sunny blue sky.
Alberta’s medical system is also highly regarded. Perhaps it’s no surprise. The province’s commitment to quality, safe care is even writ in legislation, in the Health Quality Council of Alberta Act.
The legislated council therefore enjoys unique authority in doing detailed system reviews of even politically sensitive issues in healthcare.
Its commitment is to release all review findings to the public.
But it also contributes to a groundbreaking public alert system launched in 2011 by the Canadian Patient Safety Institute (CPSI).
The Global Patient Safety Alerts system is a searchable, web-based clearinghouse of healthcare information and advisories gleaned from contributors’ patient safety incidents. The system is gaining traction, but its impact relies on health regions and health organizations generously sharing lessons from patient safety incidents.
Dr. John Cowell, CEO of the Health Quality Council of Alberta, was with it from the beginning and has overseen a dozen system reviews.
Reviews were done on everything from emergency- room wait times to the province’s ground ambulance system. The council even conducted a review over allegations that Alberta physicians were being deterred from advocating on behalf of patients.
“We made strong recommendations to Alberta Health Services that it needed to develop and walk the talk around a just culture, where individuals would feel safe to speak out,” said Dr. Cowell. They also reviewed and made recommendations pertaining to the value of trust in relationships among staff members, as well as between staff and leadership levels.
As Dr. Cowell adds, those recommendations were a bit unusual in that they were philosophical in nature. Typically, patient safety concerns are more technical.
But this again speaks to the authority given to the council to recommend improvements to healthcare in Alberta
“We’ve got many, many recommendations out there that are in play,” says Dr. Cowell.
Alberta’s role in sharing information with other healthcare stakeholders and organizations is music to the ears of Wendy Nicklin, CEO at Accreditation Canada, which sets national standards for health care. Nicklin was also a board member at CPSI when Global Patient Safety
Alerts were first discussed.
“It’s important in healthcare that we learn from each other,” said Nicklin. “I think we have a professional responsibility to inform our colleagues around the world of some risk or caution that is required, as well as the potential steps to address it.”
In Alberta, the Health Quality Council is ready and willing to take on controversial issues.
The council also reviewed the province’s response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic, as well as a case where the wrong mother's breast milk was delivered to an infant. The issues were headline-making news for months.
Cowell says the council’s work is far from done. Reviewing and improving the policies, practices and human interactions in a system as vast and complex as health care is a task without end.
“This is long, hard, detailed and relentless work over time,” says Dr. Cowell. “This is shifting culture from one that gave less
service to quality and safety, to one which actually understands that it’s highly pragmatic, central to the well-being of citizens and is very measurable.
“All high performance corporations have figured out what their dimensions of quality are and how to perform against it.” Performance, however, does not equate to perfection, adds Dr. Cowell.
“In a highly complex system that is a combination of great science and imperfect science, where trained individuals try to do their best for those who suffered some tragedy, mistakes will be made,” he says. “People will fail.”
As he says, that’s why healthcare needs a mechanism like Global Patient Safety Alerts to report and share the findings from patient safety events.
It’s not about naming individuals, says Dr. Cowell. It’s not about blaming or shaming anyone.
It’s about improving healthcare, system by system.
That’s the way they do it in Alberta. It’s an advantage.