The people side of health care (Editorial)

By John Hobel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/24/2003

If you’re looking for an HR challenge the health-care sector could use your help.

Cutbacks, change management and health professional shortages have made managing the human resources side of health care one of the HR profession’s more interesting challenges, to say the least. Now, the Romanow commission’s report on the future of Canada’s health-care system, complete with a chapter on human resources, provides hope for the sector’s beleaguered employers and HR practitioners. This could be an opportunity to take part in a worthwhile endeavour — revitalizing the health-care-system — but we’ll have to see if politicians deliver the $15-billion spending increase Romanow wants.

The commission’s recipe for HR salvation is a strong one, but it will require skilled HR professionals to help bring about change. If the cash arrives, employers will have an opportunity to put sound HR to work, instead of the crisis management that has been the hallmark of a financially starved system.

Romanow doesn’t want the new spending to be eaten up by salary increases. He states recent settlements have made Canadian health workers among the highest paid in the industrialized world (only Germany and the United States have comparable or higher salaries, unfortunately for Romanow the U.S. is next door with a similar culture to draw professionals to). The commissioner goes on to urge employers to “consider the impact of future negotiations on the sustainability of medicare.”

Since the provinces launched health care “reforms” in the 1990s, HR in the sector has meant laying people off and trying to keep services going with over-burdened, burned-out staff. And then when you did try to hire, labour shortages got in your way — apparently laid off nurses would rather move to the United States or quit the profession than wait around for the recruitment/layoff pendulum to swing back to hiring.

Thanks to governments, HR planning in the health sector has been a mess. As the Canadian Policy Research Network told the Romanow commission, a cycle of hiring and layoffs, based on budget cutting instead of supply and demand, must end.

The commission wants to give a new entity, the Health Council of Canada, the job of addressing HR needs. Among other roles, the council — made up of representatives from the public, the health professional community and experts in management and governance — would provide regular reports on the recruitment, distribution and remuneration of health-care providers.

Also on a macro level, the commission noted the need to review education and training to focus on teamwork and collaboration of professionals, as well as preparing workers for new roles and responsibilities. This also means sorting out who can do what in the health system.

While much of the commission’s HR focus is on co-ordinated national responses to staffing issues that should ease many HR practitioners’ woes, HR professionals will still have to deal with the need to revitalize the spirits of health-care employees, managers and executives.

Health managers have been under increasing strain, suffering from a lack of clear vision for moving forward. (And you can include HR practitioners in this group.) While Romanow has detailed the problem and recommended funding to create stability, HR professionals must now work with managers to instill best practices into people management. It’s time for a new approach to health-care HR — one based upon solid management practices. This could be the publicly funded system’s last chance.

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