New minister has calmer touch
By David Climenhaga
Morale among doctors, nurses and other medical staff is dramatically better than it was two years ago at Alberta Health Services, the massive health board that runs all the province’s public hospitals.
When AHS executives announced the results of their 2012 survey of employees, medical staff and volunteers who work in the AHS system yesterday, they were justifiably pleased by the improved morale, which according to a Calgary newspaper they attributed to “employee recognition, increased decision-making at the local level and an unqualified commitment to support patient advocacy.”
But that’s only part of the story of why morale is better at AHS than it was the last time the survey was conducted, in 2010.
There are two other big reasons that AHS didn’t mention in its rambling and earnest news release and which didn’t come up in the coverage on a day when most reporters were chasing a very different story:
Ron Liepert is gone
Stephen Duckett is gone too
Mr. Liepert was the minister of health under former premier Ed Stelmach from March 2008 until January 2010, so the 2010 survey was conducted while the office door was still swinging behind him.
During his time in the Alberta provincial cabinet, Mr. Liepert earned a well-deserved reputation as a bull in a china shop. He was controversial all right – the kind of controversial that caused crowds of seniors to spontaneously boo him when he entered a room. I’ve seen it and heard it with my own eyes and ears.
On the policy side, Mr. Liepert leaned toward the idea private care is better. You may agree that the controversial kinds of reforms he advocated were needed and helpful, or you may think they were unnecessary and dangerous. But almost everyone agrees that he was forceful and undiplomatic in the way he went about doing his job.
He was a broadcaster by trade, and medical professionals didn’t hold his views in high regard. Morale suffered.
Public outrage about the state of Alberta’s health care system and Mr. Liepert’s role in it was so intense by January 2010 that premier Stelmach, who obviously held him in high regard notwithstanding his infamous bluntness, moved him to the important energy portfolio. He has since retired from politics.
Mr. Liepert was replaced as health minister by Gene Zwozdesky, a conciliator with a reputation for bringing parties together and cajoling them into getting along.
Dr. Duckett was the Australian PhD economist that Mr. Liepert hired as president and CEO of AHS in the spring of 2009. During his time at the helm, Dr. Duckett earned a well-earned reputation as a bull in a china shop.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Dr. Duckett could be extremely rude. (His defenders chalked this up to his using charming Australianisms that Canadians didn’t understand. This is nonsense. He may not have always been rude, but he certainly was when I heard him in action.)
After leaving AHS, Dr. Duckett has portrayed himself as a defender of public health care, and maybe that’s true. He has a fair complaint, perhaps, if as he says he was brought in on the understanding he’d be running a well-funded health system and was then told when he got here he’d have to cut a billion dollars out of it.
But his decisions were sudden and mercurial, and seemed to employees, health professionals and the public alike to have been made without consideration or contemplation.
One minute we had a province-wide nursing shortage and then, according to Dr. Duckett, there was no shortage of nurses at all. (Now there’s a nurse shortage again.) One minute we were about to rebuild a major psychiatric hospital and the next, after Dr. Duckett waved his calculator, we were going to close it down. (Now it’s being renovated again.)
He was a technocrat, and medical professionals didn’t hold his views in high regard. Morale suffered.
Perhaps unfairly, Dr. Duckett became a lightning rod for everything large numbers of Albertans thought was going wrong with their health care system.
Finally, in November 2010, came the renowned “cookie incident,” in which Dr. Duckett was breathtakingly rude to a group of reporters – with the action captured on camera and quickly loaded onto Youtube. Mr. Zwozdesky had had it up to here – or maybe it was there. At any rate, Dr. Duckett was spectacularly fired. He has since returned to Australia.
If Mr. Liepert and Dr. Duckett hurt morale on their own, the combination somehow added up to something more than the whole of its parts. They didn’t just seem like two bulls in a china shop. It felt like there was a whole stampede. Morale at AHS headed for the sub-basement!
Mr. Zwozdesky, the old smoothie, replaced Dr. Duckett with Dr. Chris Eagle, a physician, and a soft-spoken, courtly man.
Under Premier Alison Redford, who replaced premier Stelmach, “Zwoz” has gone on to be Speaker of the Legislature. But Dr. Eagle remains in the top job of AHS.
They Didn’t work miracles, but they did pour soothing balm on the troubled waters of Alberta’s health system. The public feels better. The medical professionals – as we saw yesterday – are feeling better too.
Ms. Redford has helped too, by persuading Albertans she means it about preserving our public health care system. And her Health Minister, Fred Horne, may not be quite as reassuring as Mr. Zwozdesky, but his manners are good and he proceeds with diplomacy.
Big challenges remain getting Alberta Health Services back on track. But the sounds of hooves stomping and crockery smashing have gone away. There is peace in the valley.
This is a big part of why morale is improving at AHS.