Former Sackville hospital administrator calls for community action, coordination

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SACKVILLE, N.B. – A former executive director of the Sackville Memorial Hospital says communities need to step up and get more involved in health and wellness efforts instead of fully relying on an overburdened health care system.

“There’s a need for local coordination and local action,” said Neil Ritchie, who served as guest speaker for the Sackville Rotary breakfast meeting last Thursday.

Ritchie, who is now CEO of The Patient Safety Company Canada, a Halifax-based software solutions company that is part of an international network focused on the development apps for quality and patient safety in health care, said Canada’s health care system is on shaky ground.

With an aging population, a rising epidemic of obesity and chronic disease, and ongoing federal-provincial funding disputes, among other concerns, it’s going to be difficult to sustain the health care system for future generations, said Ritchie.

And yet despite these challenges, along with added burdens on administration and medical professionals due to cutbacks and layoffs in the industry, Ritchie said Canadians aren’t as engaged as they need to be.

“We fail to have the conversations we need to have,” he said. “We need to be talking about health care in the broader sense . . . and we should be talking about healthy communities.”

Ritchie said the focus of health care has always largely been on the number of doctors and hospital beds, and not enough on the community infrastructure and resources that are just as valuable.

“Hospitals are important but so are our schools and our playgrounds and our rinks,” he said.

A community’s built environment, such as bike trails and park systems, needs to be emphasized, he said, as well as its natural setting. Better public policies and more education are also key.

“We need to look at how can we get people more active, as well as teaching healthy behaviours.”

It’s been 20 years since Ritchie served as administrator at the Sackville hospital but he remembers well how innovative the hospital staff and the area residents were in ensuring the community was being served properly when it came to health care services.

He said the town’s business and community leaders, as well as the medical professionals, need to be re-engaged in the health care efforts and “become more involved with the conversation.”

Sackville family physician Ross Thomas said, however, it has become a significant challenge for doctors and for local residents, to “have a voice” in health care when the system has become so regionalized, with no longer a local board to provide that community connection.

“We’re not involved in the decision making,” said Thomas, who came to hear Ritchie’s talk last week. “It seems as if there’s no role for us to play.”

Dr. Allison Dysart agreed with his fellow colleague. He said in New Brunswick, over the past 15 years, the local boards were abolished, then centralized, then politicized, leaving the smaller communities with very little representation and very little say.

“What we’ve seen is absolutely no opportunity for input from the community,” said Dysart.

Ritchie said he understands the frustration with the complexities of the structure but he argued that although the communities have been left without much control, they still have the influence to make change.

“There are other ways for communities to come together . . .there can be things done at the local level that can improve the situation.”

Ritchie, who holds a bachelor of science degree from Dalhousie University and a masters in health services administration from the University of Alberta, started his career in hospital administration in Sackville in 1985.

Seven years later, he moved out west where he served as vice president of support services and human resources at the Calgary General Hospital. He was part of the reorganization of Calgary’s health system, ultimately becoming senior operating officer there.

Ritchie then moved on to the position of CEO at the Cape Breton Health Care Complex in Sydney and later became chief operating officer and vice-president of performance excellence at the Capital District Health Authority in Halifax.

Ritchie has also had a second career in health technology development, working as director of business development at Dalhousie University’s faculty of medicine. He has led several start-up, medical-related technology companies and has worked as a consultant in health business development. He is currently CEO of The Patient Safety Company Canada.

Ritchie has seen a lot of changes in health care over the past two-and-a-half decades, particularly during the 1990s, an era of health reform. Hospital beds were cut, clinics were shut down, layoffs and closures were the norm – “there was a lot of changes, a lot of disruption.”

That’s when Ritchie believes the major shift in the health care organization took place  – when administrators and staff began to feel disconnected and overburdened.

And it’s disconcerting that more restructuring could be on its way, he said.

“Health care is a little bit like the weather. It’s always changing,” said Ritchie.

That’s why communities need to step in and take broader action, he said.

“We need to get more involved and I think we’re up for the challenge.”

Organizations: Sackville Memorial Hospital, Patient Safety Company Canada, Dalhousie University University of Alberta Calgary General Hospital Cape Breton Health Care Complex Capital District Health Authority

Geographic location: SACKVILLE, Canada, New Brunswick Calgary Sydney Halifax

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