Catherine Gaulton: Finding Our Way Through a Lens of Kindness

Cover art for Healthcare Change Makers, Episode 39 with Catherine Gaulton, Hosted by Philip De Souza

As we close out another year, we talk with HIROC’s CEO, Catherine Gaulton about building an engaged workforce, and the need for optimism in 2022.

Show Summary

In a special year-end episode, HIROC’s CEO, Catherine Gaulton sits down with Philip De Souza, Director, Marketing and Communications. 

The two talk about the strong culture at HIROC, a culture of caring – caring about those we serve, and those they serve (patients and families). As a leader, Catherine knows how important it is to build in moments of fun, to ensure staff have an opportunity to breathe. When asked why people stay at HIROC, Catherine called on the notion of service to a greater purpose. 

Catherine shares some top topics from recent meetings with Subscribers, including cyber and health human resources. She and the leadership team at HIROC are focused on inspiring healthcare boards and leaders to think differently, and to ask the right questions on the issues that matter most. 

As for 2022, Catherine is optimistic that HIROC can continue to help Subscribers, and that together we can turn the corner on safety. 

Mentioned in this Episode


Imagine you could step inside the minds of Canada's healthcare leaders, glimpse their greatest fears, strongest drivers, and what makes them tick. Welcome to Healthcare Change Makers, a podcast where we talk to leaders about the joys and challenges of driving change and working with partners to create the safest health care system.

Philip De Souza: Hello, and welcome to a very special edition of Healthcare Change Makers. Today, we're sitting down with HIROC CEO Catherine Gaulton. Welcome, Catherine.

Catherine Gaulton: Well, thank you. Great to be here.

Philip De Souza: So we'll get right to our questions for you. It's been a very busy year at HIROC, to say the least. What are you most proud of this year, Catherine?

Catherine Gaulton: Too many things to talk about, really. And I'll just say, there are so many phenomenal leaders in our system. I appreciate that you're speaking to me. First off, I have, for the entirety of my working career, been proud to be associated with this healthcare system in Canada. And this year, and of course, the past 18 months, has just made that all the more acute. I'm just phenomenally proud of the people who work in our system, the care that they've shown to people, their resilience in just getting through this time and getting through it, in my view, with flying colors. And so I'm phenomenally proud to being remotely associated with all those people who have done so much over the past period. But even if I think about people inside HIROC, our own staff, likewise, truly, truly heroic pieces. Just an amazingly resilient group of people who have incorporated what is important to healthcare and to how they live.

And I tell this story a lot, and I will probably tell it too many times. But the fact that you have someone who is entirely vested in insurance, calling you to say, "We need to make a decision in right now so that services to clients can happen tomorrow morning." I'll say, I don't think you get that in most insurance companies. And it's why, of course, we are not only, and not perhaps even most vested in being an insurance company. We take our insurance to be the starting base that we operate from but then intend to provide so much more. But just those people, the fact that we were able to respond quickly. The fact that we reallocated our priorities quickly to address what our subscribers need. The fact that we were there when new subscribers needed a place to go to get that stable insurance.

And to then, after that benefit, from what we can provide to the system. Just an amazing, an amazing group of people who took what subscribers were saying, took what questions they were asking, and then made them available, the answers to those things available for the entirety of our subscribership. I will miss so many things. But to say that through all of that, we stayed the course for strategic priorities because we knew those are also very important to subscribers. And stayed the course on the culture that we know we need to live in order to really be as useful as we can be to subscribers, so our internal culture.

And to be still a top employer in the GTA is huge, I think, throughout this time. The caring, phenomenal caring, both, of course, in our subscribership and internal to HIROC. And there's too many things, as I said. But the importance of having a board that knows the system. Knows where our priorities should be and knows that HIROC gets it's best effect when we are supportive of all those people who work here. So our board's been phenomenal. So focused in support and never a chink in that armor of support for our subscribers and for the organization as a whole. You see, I told you there were too many things. I'm going to stop. I'll stop while I'm ahead.

Philip De Souza: Yes. There's definitely a lot, which is good. And you're absolutely right. It's good. Thank you for highlighting the fact that HIROC was just awarded the top 100 in the GTA for a sixth year in a row. It's amazing to hear that. And so, speaking about team HIROC. There's a few retirements on the horizon as well. Employees who have been at HIROC for many, many years. So what is it about the HIROC culture that sees for a very engaged workforce, in your opinion?

Catherine Gaulton: Yeah, it's just we have phenomenal people, and we'll miss those people so much because they've contributed to this culture that we keep talking about, but it's so difficult to describe. So I don't know exactly what it is. I think it is about caring and that means caring about each other. It means caring about those we serve, our subscribers. And then those they serve and all of the patients and others who receive healthcare in this country. There's a mission to it that carries through in how we all then work. I keep telling the story, and I'll tell it too frequently. Again, another story too frequently. But coming to HIROC and be here only three weeks or so and asking what staff wanted to have as a focus for a staff cafe, a retreat that's about staff, and having the only recommendation be that we talk about how we better serve subscribers.

So I think that notion of service and of a greater purpose carries through. It means people stay. You're fulfilled in your work. And certainly, that's been the case for me, but I just see it among all of our staff. And I say all, and people would say, "Well, that's unlikely." And yet, I don't know. We have this universal approach to service to each other and to subscribers that I think gives us a mission that then, in turn, creates the culture. It's phenomenal really. I've been around many workplaces, as you know, but it is quite phenomenal to have that.

Philip De Souza: Well, we learned from everywhere, including yourself. And for listeners who want to hear another story. I can share a story too. Catherine's anniversary is actually coming up, her fifth anniversary. She started in February of 2017...  Anyways, long story short, on her first day, we had lined up a speaking engagement for Catherine with our partners at the OHA, and there are a bunch of other system health leaders there. One, in particular, another recent guest...

Catherine Gaulton: Dr. Tim Rutledge 

Philip De Souza: That's right. And so you were there, speaking with him at this OHA event. And it was Catherine's very first day. And obviously, being there at the event and getting to now know you over five years and seeing you on the first day, you were exactly like all the other HIROC employees who jump right into it and are there to serve and collaborate and listen. So when people hear this it'll likely be your fifth anniversary. Happy anniversary.

Catherine Gaulton: Thank you. And thank you for that. It's funny. I was working with a leader once who said to me that you will get the best out of people if you say to them, "If you were to tell your mother what you're doing and what you're accomplishing in a day, what would it be?" And this idea of proudly serving people and being so proud of something that you're proud to tell your parents about it. And certainly, for me, that's always been the case. My parents have always felt that a career in service, at first in nursing, of course, was just the most phenomenal place to be. And I think it's amazing that you work with a whole group of people who feel the same way. So we're very privileged.

Philip De Souza: No, absolutely. So Catherine, when the team does deep dives into claims trends, you've mentioned how we at HIROC need to also delve deeper and think about larger systemic factors in healthcare that can have effects on an organization's risk management posture. So can you share a bit more about this thinking?

Catherine Gaulton: Yeah. So for me, I mean, we have a huge data set, at the same time as it's a small data set. And someone describes it being the point of a small dot on the tip of a needle if you look at our data, as it compares to the data that's available in the system as a whole. So even just that, to really know that there is so much more that's out there from a data perspective, but perhaps even more so there's so much out there that is the experience. And I'm just struck by what we've learned from one subscriber, particularly during the pandemic, and how it has been phenomenally useful than for a bigger group of subscribers. So this sort of experience in the system, because I think you could say, "Here are the five things," and if you don't contextualize it to the experience and knowledge of the system as a whole it'll fall short.

And so I think that appreciation for that. But things like what's happening to the health human resources in our system in light of even pre-pandemic. But particularly, coming out of the pandemic, and how does that relate? How is it that our people who work in the system are most fulfilled or doing the things that they are best qualified to do and not doing things that perhaps others can do. All of those can consume. And the right margins of that are a context to safety and quality that we will miss unless we listen well, and frankly, make it our business to know the system that we serve very well.

Philip De Souza: And so, speaking of what we're sharing. What are some trends you're speaking with subscribers about these days?

Catherine Gaulton: Yeah. So, look, lots about cyber. And it's so terrible that we don't get to turn on the TV or any media source without seeing yet another exposure on that front. So it's become a huge issue. But also, I think, and more, more than the cyber piece is just the impact of the pandemic and on our health human resource. The fact that we have people who have given their all, who continue to give their all, but who may see this is the time for them to transition out of the system. It's interesting. You talk to healthcare providers, and they say, "I'm going to retire after the pandemic" because they have that devotion to getting the system through it. But we need them. We need their expertise. We need them to be around for all of these new healthcare professionals who are coming forward, who are here in record numbers entering health profession schools. But that transition of people who are very expert. For HIROC itself, look, we've lost.

We have allowed people to welcome themselves into retirement, and we're very happy for them. But even for us, and we're such a small subset of the overall health system. But even for us, the knowledge that we need to learn from them and to allow a transition from learning from those who are very experienced and expert in the system. So I think that piece, the health human resource piece, will be the issue. It is the issue. We recently had a board retreat, and you know how you do a scattered diagram that talks about the most predominant thing that came out of the discussion if you're asked what's most important. And so, normally, you see 12 things, and the one that's most prevalent will be the biggest. Well, in our survey, only health human resource came out because it filled the entire screen from the perspective of its importance.

So I think that will be the factor. I feel a bit worried about that generally, but I'm bit worried about it in relation to what HIROC can do and how can we most positively impact it. And I think the only way forward for us on that front is to actually, again, be listening so carefully about what our subscribers need and what we can support. And frankly, to bring the lens of risk to that. So what is it about risk that's stopping us from doing what we know we have to do and what are the right considerations so we do what we might need to do in a way that ensures the maintenance of patient safety and quality throughout? So I think that will be the factor Philip, I think we won't get past that, and we need to be really thinking of the long game in that, and bringing our respective areas of the expertise to bear on question.

Philip De Souza: And I'm glad you brought up the board, which by the way, I'm in awe of our board at HIROC. But in general, about governance. So what are you sharing with our subscribers and their boards when it comes to risk and governance and everything that comes along with it?

Catherine Gaulton: Yeah. So boards are... I'll say, I sit on a number of boards, so I'll just speak from that experience and not think that I can speak for all of our boards. I think what happens on a board is you have fantastically devoted people who want to make a difference, and yet we're not doing we're governing and not doing. And that's an appropriate balance to keep. So then, how do you exercise that role? And it really is in asking the right questions, inspiring those who are actually leading the system day-to-day to think about things in a different way or to consider things they may not have considered. And so, some of the tools that we've really been focusing on is how to ask the right questions. How to structure the question, because we'll feel we don't even know the right questions to ask.

Catherine Gaulton: And so, things like our 21 Questions a board should ask about risk are phenomenally important. And I'm just hearing subscriber boards be very interested in that. And frankly, I think, gain some level of comfort from the fact that they may already be asking the right questions, but if they aren't, how is they ask more. And how does a board... how does HIROC positively impact health human resource for subscribers? Boards will be facing that very same question. And so work around how to ask that. I also say generally on patient safety and quality, it's difficult for boards to think that they know enough to ask the right questions. And so our focus on some of the work for orienting boards and senior executives to quality and risk and safety in ways that I think are short and snappy. People don't have loads of time.

So some of the work that we've been doing in our strategic planning around that and to support the boards, and frankly, our availability for boards. And I'll say, HIROC is phenomenally privileged to be invited into boardrooms. These are busy people with a massive amount on their plate. And the fact that they make room for what we can offer means we have a big obligation to make our time with them very useful. But things around coverage and quality and safety and risk and claims and cyber, health human are really, of course, dominating boards discussions right now.

Philip De Souza: Yes, definitely lots of hot topics at boards and board agendas these days. And I'm going to change subjects a bit here. And you're very passionate about supporting people. I'm very privileged that you support me. And so, no matter the role in the organization, you're there to support and help. And you've also got two sons who recently finished school and are also entering the workforce. So what's your go-to advice when you're providing guidance to others?

Catherine Gaulton: Yeah. I think there's a lot about humility. There's a lot about being willing to listen to those who are doing the work and actually thinking about where your passion is. And so for my sons, I do that. I think it's really very hard for people new in their career and newly exiting schools to kind of figure out their way forward. I think it's harder than when I was young. And so I think the connects you make, the people you learn from. I have this joke where I say, "I have a lot of years in school, but probably if I can claim to be successful at all, it's because I'm a good eavesdropper," which it doesn't remotely mean that I've been eavesdropping. I've been present for conversations that where people have been talking, and I've listened carefully and in the connects you make.

So I think, for young people, there is a lot about finding your passion. There's a lot about just knowing what you don't know. Frankly, though, there is as much for us who are more experienced in the system to know that we can learn from people who are newly entering the system. I am amazed, amazed every time I sit down in conversations where I might be arrogant to think that I probably am the most experienced in the room. And I'll say, I've not walked away from a conversation with people newly joining HIROC and newly joining healthcare, where I haven't learned a whole lot. I've eavesdropped on them and it's been phenomenally good. So I think this idea of learning from the situations you're in, even if you're not directly involved in it is crucial. And for us to be mentors. For young people to mentor those who are more senior to them all in a very respectful way with great humility is the advice I would give...

Philip De Souza: Yeah, I remember that you've given lots of advice and one of them, it wasn't to eavesdrop per se, but you gave me some sound advice a long time ago about how listening is key, but sensing. Just being a good sensor. And so in a room or nowadays on a call or on the phone, or even reading through emails and just sensing what people are feeling, what they're thinking, where they may have fears, apprehensions, and kind of connect to that to ask more questions and learn more and see how I can provide value. And that's something that's helped me. And that advice you gave me in asking, "How can I help?"

Catherine Gaulton: I think there's a huge piece about that. And I think about it, Philip... HIROC's managed very well in working from home, and we could say, "Well, that's great." All of the bits of work are being done, and they're being done very well. And I think that would not be the case. So if we just list task and then decide that those are the tick boxes we need to do, we would've missed something crucial in the quality of the service and the culture that you come from. And so I think you need to be thinking about what's important to people. What compassion is needed in the moment?

So the fact that we've come together as a staff, not just to talk about what's the latest on the strategic plan, but what's the latest about how we're feeling around loss, around racism, around all the things that connect to culture and what's our position on that. And the fact that we come together to learn, I think, is huge. But it can't be a set of tasks. It just cannot be. Your people are the only way you're successful. And if you're not looking after the whole person or trying to. You can do your best on this front, but you need to have it be as much of a priority as getting the tick boxes or the to-do list done.

Philip De Souza: No, you're absolutely right. And for listeners, I know Catherine's very modest, but in a given week at HIROC, we'll likely have, like many of you, have many, many meetings on our calendars, but then we'll also have this thing called, for example, lunch with Catherine, where we all just kind of pile onto our Webex and just say hi to each other. Or we'll have, like Catherine just mentioned, some time to reflect on grief and loss because many staff are going through different things that we all may not be aware of and just to be there for one another. And then another day, there might be a coffee chat. So there's so much happening in our calendars. But I think I do anyways, personally. But I know the staff do appreciate that you build in that time for us, Catherine, so that we can have those moments of just like, "Ah," like a deep breath.

Catherine Gaulton: Yeah. I think it's important. And then there's just some fantastic fun times. Having a kid's Christmas party where the kids are opening their presents on a screen, and you think, "Oh yeah, well, no one... They just all want to get off the phone or off the screen or something." And it's actually not the case. Every child wants to see you open... have the whole group see them opening presents. And you remember that just that togetherness is so important or having Jonathan's daughter doing a magic trick on the screen. It was phenomenal. I mean, absolutely phenomenally fun. And it's the fun that really will make the difference in the end, right. It really will... the fun together, both in how you feel about work, but in how good your work is too.

Philip De Souza: No, 100%. That's a good segue to my next question, which is, what are you optimistic about and looking forward to in 2022?

Catherine Gaulton: Oh, so that's a horrible question to ask someone like me because I say everything. I get up every day feeling that today's going to be the day that that turns the corner for so many things. I am very, very optimistic that we'll work together with subscribers and what are really important to them. And that we'll figure out... we'll know what those are. And I think that will be a huge amount around a health human resource. I'm optimistic that we'll continue to take things off the plate of subscribers that are better on our plate as opposed to on their plate that will just respond to that need and free them up to do what they do best. I'm looking forward to an Ontario benefits program and what that means. And just working with new and phenomenal people who have that as their passion. I am very much looking forward to being back in the office with our colleagues.

I miss it a lot. You can only do so much on the screen, though, I think we've done a lot of on screens, but I am hugely optimistic about that. I think we started to make some real changes in relation to the financial posturing for our program. And I think to ensure that we are as efficient as we can be, because that means so much to our subscribers, both from a financial perspective and also from the expertise that we offer and, again, when we take off their plates. So I have 55 things easily at hand about what I'm hopeful about.

But really, I think this year will show us that we're strong, that we've come through horrible times, that we're better for it, that our resiliency has really shown the part. I hope, and I'm very optimistic that those who are actually on the front line of healthcare will continue to be appreciated and will feel appreciated for what they've done. And that will mean that they have some more time for us to spend with us in this system that needs them so desperately.

Philip De Souza: It's definitely. Before we let you go, we are going to put you through a lightning round. We do with all our episodes. And so I'll ask you a question, and you can give a very short answer or you can give a longer answer if you'd like.

Catherine Gaulton: I'll keep it short. I promise.

Philip De Souza: The first question in the lightning round is, who is a living leader you most admire?

Catherine Gaulton: It's hard. So many, but Angela Merkel.

Philip De Souza: Good. If you had time to go back to school and be an undergrad again, which course would you want to take?

Catherine Gaulton: Art history.

Philip De Souza: Oh, that's an interesting one. Okay. What's the last thing you do before you go to bed?

Catherine Gaulton: I prepare for the next day. I need something when I wake up to know that I'm ready to go immediately. And so that means making sure the coffee's ready to go. And those types of things. That my to-do list is on the right-hand side of my desk, so I prepare for the next day. That's the last thing I do.

Philip De Souza: That's a good thing. What's the best advice a mentor has given you?

Catherine Gaulton: It really is to go with your passion. Be yourself. The grounding in nursing for me meant that I let myself be there very early in my career because, frankly, when you're dealing with things that are so personal to people, there isn't a space for, we call it in Newfoundland, "airs". There isn't a space for arrogance or for posturing or any of those things. And so I think to be yourself and to not apologize too much for that. And people say to me, "What would be your advice to parents?" It really is that you raise children who are kind and who find their way through a lens of kindness. And they're fulfilled. There are all kinds of other measures of success, but I say kindness is a massive one.

Philip De Souza: No, that's very good advice. What do you do to unwind and take a break from the busyness of work? Because I know your calendar. It's pretty busy. So what do you do to just chill and relax?

Catherine Gaulton: Yeah. So physical activity works very well for me. As you know, I've been knitting like a crazy person. I don't know. I think I'm up to 50 toques and 10 baby sweaters and scarves and all kinds of things. All that I've knitted. That's a big release for me. But probably the best release, and when I do my best thinking, is when I'm walking the dog. And I worked a 12 hour a day recently, just because a whole load of board meetings came together. I don't recommend it. And by the time it was done I had a dog who was essentially dancing to go for a walk, and I was too. So I think that kind of physical is actually changing away from this kind of mental exercise to physical things is huge.

Philip De Souza: No, most definitely. Well, Catherine, thank you so much taking time. And for listeners out there, Catherine did mention a resource called the 21 Questions. So we encourage you to go to our website and click on resources tab, and just type in 21 Questions, and you'll find a variety of resources there. And also, Catherine did mention that next year is the last year of our current strategic plan. And I know she often welcomes feedback from subscribers...

Catherine Gaulton: Definitely. It will be a silly thing unless we hear from our subscribers. So I'm happy that the people I'm working with to get to a new strategic plan are actually really keen to hear from those internal to HIROC and to our subscribers and to our partners. And so we look forward to that input for sure. I really want to say happy holidays, and Philip, I want to say thank you to you. When I let my looking out for people take even for a minute second place to the work of the day, you're always there to remind me in a general way about how important that is and to facilitate ways to make it happen. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Philip De Souza: Yeah, we make it happen together. So thank you so much. And we look forward to a great 2022.

Catherine Gaulton: Me too. Happy holidays, everybody. And 2022 is going to be phenomenal. No question.

Thank you for listening. You can hear more episodes of Healthcare Change Makers on our website and on your favourite podcasting apps. If you like what you hear, please rate us or post a review. Healthcare Change Makers is recorded by HIROC's Communications and Marketing team and produced by Podfly Productions. Follow us on Twitter at @hirocgroup or email us at We'd love to hear from you.