Care with a human touch

A letter from the Winnipeg Health Region

Winnipeg Health Region President & CEO
Wave, May / June 2015

Arlene Wilgosh
Arlene Wilgosh

Time passes quickly, doesn't it?

It seems like only yesterday that I graduated from the last nursing class of the Winnipeg General Hospital, the Class of '74.

Now, after working 41 years as a nurse and administrator, including the last five years as President and CEO of the Winnipeg Health Region, I am retiring. Lori Lamont, currently the Region's Vice-President of Nursing, will take over in my absence until the search for a permanent president and CEO has been completed.

Needless to say, the decision to leave the Region was not an easy one. After all, I have spent much of my life working in health care, going back all the way to when I was a teenage candy striper at the hospital in my hometown of Minnedosa in the late 1960s.

For those who may not know, a candy striper is a volunteer who carries out various tasks in hospitals, such as helping out nurses on the ward or simply talking to patients.

Historically, the teenage girls carrying out these tasks wore a uniform with red and white stripes, hence the name candy striper.

I learned a lot while volunteering at the local hospital. It was during this time, for example, that I got my first real insight into the wonders of medicine - how certain drugs or treatments could be used to help people who were sick or injured. But I also learned something else: the importance of compassion, dignity and respect in the delivery of health care.

Of course, much has changed since those early days - and I am not just talking about the fact that nurses are no longer required to wear a white cap as I did on my first day on the job at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg.

Indeed, the very definition of health care has evolved dramatically over the last four decades. In the early 1970s, health care was still largely defined by what took place in a hospital. If you were sick or injured, you went to a hospital and the medical staff there would do what they could to treat you.

Today, we think of health care in much broader terms. There is a concerted effort in all jurisdictions to move as much health care as possible out of the hospital and into the community.

The Winnipeg Health Region, for example, has tried to do this in a number of ways, including through the creation of a number of ACCESS centres throughout the city. These centres provide a wide range of services, including nutrition education, primary care, mental health and public health. They also offer classes that help people learn how to manage a chronic condition - such as Type 2 diabetes.

Home care has also become a much larger component of the health-care system. In 1974, the provincial home care staff consisted of about 130 employees, most of whom were part-time. Today, the Region provides home care through a series of programs that employ about 4,200 people and serve about 15,000 clients. The program is a key strategy in the effort to help people stay in their own homes as long as they can.

Advances in technology and the development of new drugs and treatments over the last four decades have also had an astonishing effect on the delivery of health care and outcomes for patients.  

Consider for a moment that there were no magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) machines in Winnipeg when I entered nursing school in 1972. Today, these machines are used every day to help diagnose a range of tumours and injuries. Within the Winnipeg Health Region alone, there were 57,220 MRI scans and 111,692 CT scans performed during the 2013/14 fiscal year.  

Our cover story in this issue of Wave offers another example of the difference modern medicine is making in the outcomes of patients. As the article on page 12 explains, babies are being born sooner and have a better chance of survival than ever before. Much of the reason for this improvement can be attributed to new drug treatments.

But the story doesn't end there. Many of these tiny infants are also benefitting from a program that enables them to rest on their mother's chest for several hours a day. In the past, parents would often not be allowed to hold their premature babies after birth because it was thought they would be better off spending all of their time in the incubator. But now parents, mostly moms, are able to hold their babies soon after the baby is born.

The reason for the change is that babies who rest skin-to-skin on a mother's chest do better than babies who don't. As our story points out, their vital signs improve, they sleep better and they gain weight faster. This approach, known as kangaroo care, has been around for a while, but it really started to take off in the last few years after a group of Winnipeg nurses learned about the benefits of this approach at a conference in the United States. Not only has this program been good for babies, it has also been good for their parents. Nurses report that parents feel much better knowing they are doing something to help their infants thrive.  

In many ways, this story underscores the lessons I learned all those years ago as a candy striper in Minnedosa. Yes, advances in technology and the development of new  drugs do play a critically important role in improving outcomes for patients. But we should never underestimate the value of the human touch or the importance of being able to connect with patients and their families.

It's easy to understand why. The fact is that medical science can only take you so far. If you have a patient who does not feel like he or she is being heard, or if they feel the nurse has been cranky or the doctor hasn't answered their questions, then their care has not been what it should be. 

The people working at the Region understand this very well. It's why dignity and respect are key components of our mission, vision, values statement. And it's why we keep working to ensure that we provide care that is rooted in these values.

That's not to say we are always perfect.

I know there are times when, despite our best intentions, the level of care we offer falls short. But I also know that the women and men working throughout the Region remain committed to providing care with a human touch. And that's not something that will change, even with the passage of time.

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Traditional Territories Acknowledgement
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority acknowledges that it provides health services in facilities located on the original lands of Treaty 1 and on the homelands of the Metis Nation. WRHA respects that the First Nation treaties were made on these territories and acknowledge the harms and mistakes of the past, and we dedicate ourselves to collaborate in partnership with First Nation, Metis and Inuit people in the spirit of reconciliation.
Click here to read more about the WRHA's efforts towards reconciliation

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