“Far more that unites us than divides us”

Leslee Thompson reflects on what needs to change in the world of accreditation

Monday, May 15, 2017 – Ellen Gardner

Even when the questions at her Breakfast with the Chiefs session on May 4 got tough, Leslee Thompson didn’t stop smiling. Coping with crisis, unhappy people, patient harm – no need to break a sweat, she’s seen it all. In fact, Leslee herself would tell you that she likes to go where it’s dangerous – which probably makes her ideally suited for a life in healthcare.

She had the audience at ‘hello’ with her opening slide showing a young (smiling of course) Queen’s nursing student with a 15-year old new mom holding her baby in Moose Factory. “I was petrified,” she says. “This was a big moment for this young girl and I was wondering, ‘how can we make this work?’” Out of that learning experience in 1982 came the insight that is still Leslee’s abiding philosophy today – “Never doubt the power of communication and the human touch,” she said. “Engagement with patients is a big part of who I am.”

Sticking with that belief sustained Leslee and put Kingston General Hospital on the map when she helped transform it from a hospital with an abysmal safety record, financial challenges and disillusioned staff by making one, very big critical change. “The board put a stake in the ground and said any decision affecting patients must have patients involved,” she says. It was an exciting development and completely changed the culture of care in the organization at a time when partnering with patients was still a new concept in Canada.

Jump forward a few years and now as CEO of HSO (Health Standards Organization) and its affiliate Accreditation Canada, Leslee is still listening and learning from patients (and clinicians) as she and her team grapple with the question, “What is standing in the way of achieving safe patient care?”

A lot like a visit from the in-laws

The pursuit of an answer – or at least some new approaches – has taken her literally on a 15-month round-the-world journey of introspection and discovery. Doing research and interviews on five different continents in 45 cities with over 700 people, she says has helped them uncover some “inconvenient truths” about accreditation. “Accreditation is a lot like having the in-laws come to visit,” she said to knowing laughs from the audience. “You spend a lot of time sprucing up, they come and then you’re very happy when they leave.”

She’s well aware that people have an adverse reaction at the mere mention of accreditation – “More rules, more regulation, more reporting,” she says. “For people on the ground in healthcare at its worst it’s administrative crap and to many other less harsh judges, accreditation is just one more thing to deal with.”

Losing touch with the ‘why’

All that time on planes and in airports gave Leslee time to reflect on the ‘why’ – “maybe we’ve lost touch with that” – but she takes heart in the fact that good things are happening in many parts of the world. In the Netherlands, for example, the surveyors are called ‘co-makers’ and have deep connections with their communities. Leslee and her team were participants in a far-reaching assessment project with the European Commission that saw agreement from 28 states in just eight months on pathways to help people with rare diseases. “It’s not good news everywhere, but what I’ve seen has convinced me that there is far more in the world that unites us, than divides us,” she says.

Back on the ground in Canada, HSO and AC are drawing on their experiences and looking at shared value. “I’m struck by people’s passion and commitment to doing the right thing but there are so many obstacles in their way that must be removed,” Leslee says.

She doesn’t sidestep the difficult question from an audience member about accreditation’s obsession with ratings rather than process. “What about governance and leadership?” he asks.

Her response is characteristic Leslee, upbeat and direct. “The standards have to be the standards,” she says, “but we can never lose sight of the human side of change. It’s the patient who has all the information.”  

By Ellen Gardner, Senior Specialist, Communications and Marketing, HIROC