Donna Davis has been an outspoken advocate for the patient's voice for the past nine years, drawing on a deep well of heartache with an equally deep conviction that she's helping improve quality of care across this country.
As a member of Patients for Patient Safety Canada since 2007, and a co-chair of that group for eight of those years, Davis has seen positive changes in the way health care providers collaborate with patients and their families.
"When we first started we pretty much had to invite ourselves," Davis says of that initial founding group of patient safety champions. "We had to look for opportunities to say, hey, would you like us to come and talk to your group about patient safety? It has come a long way since then. Now we have so many requests coming our way that we can't fulfill them all."
Davis remembers reaching out to the medical school at the University of Saskatchewan in those early days and asking if they'd ever had a guest speaker address the topic of patient safety. They had not.
"And I said, well, I think I have a story your students need to hear."
Fourteen years ago, Davis's 19-year-old son Vance died in a Saskatchewan hospital three days after he lost control of his truck on a rural road. Doctors had decided Vance's head injury was minor, only a concussion. Davis, a nurse by trade, felt otherwise but her growing concerns about his deteriorating health were dismissed and the family's ordeal was made even more tortuous by a series of miscommunications with health care workers. Five years of anger and frustration passed before Donna was contacted by the staff member who had conducted the hospital's review of Vance's case.
"She phoned me and she said Donna, we failed Vance in our care of him, and we failed you as a family," Davis recalls. "So I finally had validation that what I knew in my heart to be true was in fact true. Then I had to do something to try and make it right so no other family would go through what we had gone through."
Davis has been telling Vance's story ever since and believes it is that deeply personal perspective, just like those visceral experiences being shared by every one of the other patient safety volunteers now active with Patients for Patient Safety Canada, that is the prime motivator for improvements in the health care system.
Davis says she's proud of PFPSC's role in recent years in contributing to a standardized method for investigating, disclosing and sharing information about accidental harm with medical professionals and the public. She's pleased that patient safety and interacting with patients and their families is now a common part of the curriculum for many health care providers. She's also proud of her group's standing as among the most active and credible patient safety advocates in the world.
"I think every time we present to students, that's a huge milestone too. To have them hear our stories and hopefully influence and shape the kind of practitioners and providers they're going to be, and how they're going to listen to the patients and the families, before they get into the system and get jaded.
"I know a number of times that I have presented to students, the way it's received and the emails and the cards I get back afterwards, is amazing. They just about all say I will take this with me throughout my career, and remember, so that's a huge thing."
When she started advocating for patients, Davis had no idea of how healing that work would be. "But that's how I would describe it," she says. "It has healed a piece of my heart that was broken and I guess it's healed it because I know I'm honouring Vance's life and I'm making sense of his death."
Davis thinks the old paternalistic attitudes in the health system, where the patient and family views were often dismissed as largely inconsequential, are slowly changing but there is still far to go. People's egos still get in the way.
"Talk is cheap. It's easy to say 'yes, we're patient family centred, and yes, the patient family voice is important to us,' but when it comes right down to it, where they have to put it into practice, it's really easy to fall back into the old way, and that's what I still see quite a bit," says Davis, who works as a nurse manager of a long-term-care integrated facility in southern Saskatchewan.
"We just need to just stay our course. We have to realize that culture can't be changed overnight. We have to celebrate the successes that we do have and we have to bring people on board, even if it is one at a time. We have to keep doing what we're doing and that's reaching out to partner positively with the health care community."