While COVID-19 clearly dominated the past year at Health Sciences North, requiring major adjustments and extra work across departments, the organization was still able to make progress on some of the goals it had laid out prior to the pandemic.
“When I joined HSN four years ago, our medical leadership told me we need more beds, we need a second MRI, and we need an integrated regional electronic medical record,” said president and CEO Dominic Giroux, during an annual general meeting held virtually on Wednesday.
Headway has been made on all of those fronts, with 52 new bed spaces now being created at the Children’s Treatment Centre (which is relocating to the Southridge Mall this autumn), a new MRI set to begin operation in December (after a fundraising campaign recently met its $7-million goal), and work underway to make patient charts digitally accessible to 23 other hospitals in the region.
“It’s more than just a new system,” said board chair Floyd Laughren in his report to the AGM. “It is how we listen and support patients and families throughout their journey. It’s how we share health information with other care providers to reduce the need for patients to tell their stories or repeat tests.”
Laughren noted he is stepping down as chair, as his two-year term is wrapping up, but he will remain a part of the board. Taking over as chair will be Daniel Giroux, president of College Boreal and previously vice-chair of the HSN board.
Chief of staff John Fenton will remain in his role for another two years, however, and Giroux — whose five-year term as CEO was set to end in October of next year — has been reappointed by the board and will continue in the same capacity until 2027.
“Dominic has provided sound leadership to HSN and HSNRI (Health Sciences North Research Institute) over the past four years, improving our financial performance while enhancing our patient experience survey results,” said Laughren. “He developed a strong executive team and guided our organization through a new strategic plan, a regional cyber security incident, accreditation, a new capital master plan and the forthcoming digital transformation.”
Giroux’s time at the helm of HSN has also seen “significant capital approvals” from the Ministry of Health related to the Labelle Innovation and Learning Centre, the relocation of the CTS, the creation of new bed spaces at HSN and an additional MRI, noted Laughren.
The outgoing board chair also praised Giroux for his leadership during the pandemic, during which he has played not just a local role but also a provincial one, as a member of a COVID-19 response table and Ontario Hospital Association committee.
Laughren extended his gratitude to the entire HSN family for rising to the many challenges that have been presented by the virus.
“The board has been very impressed with the collective resolve of everyone at HSN throughout the pandemic,” said Laughren. “Employees and medical staff focused on providing crucial care to patients and minimizing the transmission of COVID-19 among health-care workers.”
Several key leaders in the battle to contain COVID shared their reflections during a panel discussion that led off the AGM, including Erin Tarini, who assumed the role of administrative director for the HSN lab just two weeks prior to the pandemic breaking out.
She said none of the lab’s 13 units were designed to handle the volume of PCR testing required for COVID swabs, so quick decisions and additions had to be made.
“The rapid planning and acquisition of equipment to meet the needs of our hospital and our Northern communities is an experience that will never be forgotten by anyone who works in our area,” she said.
Ultimately the lab would process more than 331,000 swabs, as well as become the first hospital lab in Ontario to provide screening for variants of concern.
Kayla Stevens, clinical manager of the respiratory care unit, recalled how her own grandfather became the first probable COVID patient admitted in early March of last year.
Luckily he ended up testing negative, but that moment — apart from being personal — was a cause for great, general concern.
“It was realizing: ‘oh my god, it’s here, what if it’s positive?’ ” Stevens said. “Are we ready? How are we going to staff this? We knew we had to provide a different level of isolation, so how are we going to manage all this?”
Another moment she won’t soon forget was the first discharge of a COVID patient, who had been on a ventilator.
“To see him come out of the ICU and see him wheeled out without oxygen, to go home to his family, that was amazing for us and gave us some hope that we could potentially stay ahead of this game and reunite family members after they’ve been admitted with this illness,” she said.
Josee Theriault, medical director of critical care, said it was a “privilege” to tackle the challenge of COVID-19 at HSN, despite the many unknowns and extra-long shifts that came with it.
“The biggest concern we had and how we came together was ensuring safety — safety of everybody involved in the care of patients, to be able to provide the patients with the proper care they required,” she said. “Everybody stepped up, everybody did many hours per day to make sure people were educated and had what they needed to be protected — to take care of patients and go through this pandemic, when the landscape and knowledge of that disease was changing almost on a daily basis.”
Theriault said she has been on call for 16 months and looks forward to a day when she can not only be off-call for a few days, but most importantly visit her father in Quebec.
“He had COVID at 91 and survived,” she said. “But I haven’t been there in a year and a half.”
More than 190 COVID patients were admitted at HSN since the beginning of the pandemic, noted Giroux in his report, and more than 96,000 tests were administered through the HSN-run COVID-19 Assessment Centre.
Jessica Grenier, chair of the Patient and Family Advisory Council, highlighted how advisers improved care in the past year, while providing important perspectives to the organization’s pandemic response.
“Throughout the pandemic, patient and family advisers continued to partner with HSN as members of HSN’s incident command and operations teams,” she said in her report.
“Our members provided input and decision-making at a senior level on important policies and issues across the organization, including on designated care partners and recovery planning.”
The hospital is also in good shape financially, AGM participants were informed.
Vasu Balakrishnan, board treasurer, reported HSN completed the 2020-21 fiscal year with a surplus from hospital operations of $2.956 million, following surpluses of $1.836 million in 2018-19 and $338,000 in 2019-20.
“We want to acknowledge the strong collaboration and responsiveness of Ontario Health and the Ministry of Health in supporting hospitals in these exceptional times,” stated Balakrishnan. “This puts us in a good position moving forward.”
Another positive is the 30 new doctors and specialists who chose to join the HSN team this past year, thanks to a partnership between the hospital, the City of Greater Sudbury, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce.
“This is the largest group of new medical staff recruits in one year to our community to date,” noted Fenton, the hospital’s chief of staff. “HSN welcomed specialists in anaesthesia, cardiology, gastroenterology, general internal medicine, general surgery, medical oncology, orthopedic surgery otorhinolaryngology, pathology, pediatrics, psychiatry, radiology and respirology.”
While the worst of the pandemic now appears to be behind us, HSN still faces significant challenges moving forward.
“Northerners know that Health Sciences North was built too small,” said Giroux in his report. “We were intended to be a single-site hospital, yet today we have 14 sites in the City of Greater Sudbury.”
Meanwhile the 70-plus demographic in the northeast is expected to grow by 26 per cent in the next decade, the CEO noted, and demand for mental-health and addictions care continues to rise.
At the same time, “each year 6,200 kids and their families unnecessarily have to leave northeastern Ontario,” he said, in order to access acute care at southern hospitals.
“As 2022 will constitute our 25th anniversary as a corporation, you can expect to hear more in the coming year about our plans for Phase One of our capital redevelopment,” said Giroux.
The plan, he said, is to “provide over the next decade more space for NEO Kids, for mental health, and for in-patient beds.”