Insights September 2016
An Open Letter

Community and Home Care, the Digital Age 

Shirlee Sharkey

This letter is part of series of Open Letters from Canadian leaders in Healthcare. To see the complete series please click here.

When I think about the future of Canadian healthcare, I wonder, ‘What would Tommy Douglas think?’  As the father of universal healthcare and a staunch social advocate for Canadians, I would love to hear his perspective on today’s dynamic and challenging times. As an innovator and futurist, I’m certain he’d be on Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn. I can only image how his work could have been amplified by the tools we have access to in today’s ‘Digital Age’. 

Well Tommy, here is an update on Canadian healthcare. Your vision of universal healthcare for Canadians is in fact a reality today and has been for 50 years.  We are a healthy nation; but we probably drink too much coffee.  Similar to other comparable countries, the life span of the average Canadian has increased from 71 years of age in 1960 to 81 years old today. The good news is we are living longer but the bad news is we are suffering more age-related illnesses and living with chronic conditions longer.  Our current health system is not without its challenges, but its existence is a point of national pride for Canadians.  Well done Tommy!

In the community and home care sector, we are feeling the impact of these changes. More people are staying at home as they age and the treatments they receive are more medically complex.  The ‘Digital Age’ has hit the healthcare and home care sector like a tidal wave and countless new technologies are appearing on the market daily.  So tell me, Tommy, ‘How do we keep the focus on the exciting possibilities for people, families and society and allow technology to enable change rather than it being the change itself?’  I suspect he would point me to social innovation and how much of his success was rooted in looking at the value and impact to society as a whole, rather than individual contributors.   

During his lifetime, Mr. Douglas witnessed tremendous societal change and transformation. Similar to today, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, technology and innovation were exploding. For example, the television was transforming the culture of the entire world.  However, the discussions about the television that took place in businesses and academia were not about the TV itself. Certainly there was some discussion of the picture quality and the device, but what was really happening was how TV was transforming the culture.  The dialogue was about how this new device was used, how the fabric of society was impacted, and how influencers could utilize this new medium. 

The parallel to today is that we have so many new technologies and devices, it’s easy to focus on them in isolation.  I think we should talk about the bigger picture - how these new technologies intersect with people.  Moreover, with home care and other services that are not covered under the universal healthcare umbrella, can we leverage social innovation and technology to create opportunities to bridge this chasm to better support Canadians?

These discussions are multidimensional and current demographics are playing a key role.  Mr. Douglas’ generation saw the emergence of the teenager as a new and powerful consumer as they caught Beatlemania and used their purchasing power to drive new products and services to meet their unique needs. Today we are meeting the needs of a confluence of generations – from young millennials to active, savvy seniors.  This challenge demands we identify and leverage intersections of how these populations access and use technology and healthcare. It’s like a 3D cross section and it’s our responsibility to identify the most effective touch points along this continuum of needs. It’s a tall order as the needs are unique – they cross not only age but also cultural, geographic and socio-economic divides. 

To be successful and lead the way, it is critical we continue to bring a wide variety of people together to discuss and advance towards our common goal; healthy Canadians. We need people from all areas of Canadian society engaged in the process of innovating healthcare.  As Mr. Douglas championed universal healthcare, today we need to rally around a universal starting point – people and families.  As was the case during his time, there is so much happening simultaneously -- we have the gift of timing – let’s capitalize on the current climate and make a difference. I only wish he were here to help us make it happen. 


About the Author(s)

Shirlee Sharkey is the President and CEO of Saint Elizabeth Health Care. @ShirleeSharkey 


Robert Pental wrote:

Posted 2016/09/27 at 05:37 PM EDT

As a Canadian one cannot help but admire Shirlee Sharkey and T.C.Douglas. Leaders, so it would seem among their varied requests, are called upon to remember the narrative that our story may continue.

Healthcare in Canada, as such, is one of those stories that touches all our lives, and some, like Ms. Sharkey, are presented here to tell the tale that it may pass on.

Now as it happens, before Sharkey and Douglas, there was an immigrant to this country and leader to our system like no other. He was in every sense a trail breaker. In fact, if you take the time to read his book "Bold Experiment" in his time laid the foundation that even Douglas himself took to knowing the story in part to write his own.

Yes, back before all that was written as it is now there was a person, who envisioned to see here in Canada a way to care for others as he had seen offered to his own mother back in Norway, and so began, public healthcare.

His name was Matthew Anderson, who long before activity based funding, rapid cycle evaluation, and systems theory overcame all obstacles standing in his way of offering compassion to others.

Accordingly, as we start the next chapter we may want to remember why we started. Yes, remember why we started. Remember, public healthcare at its foundation was a son who cared for his mother. And recall, in doing so, sought not fame, wealth, or popularity but the means that would allow any of us the opportunity to help others as we would for those we hold closest to our hearts.


Ted ball wrote:

Posted 2017/07/18 at 04:18 PM EDT

Please provide more information on this "Matthew Anderson" who has provided better guidance than Tommy Douglas or Shirley Sharkey. Any articles, books you can share?


Duncan Sinclair wrote:

Posted 2017/12/26 at 09:06 PM EST

Shirley Starkey is, as usual, right with one exception - her saying to Tommy Douglas "Your vision of universal healthcare for Canadians is in fact a reality today". I am pretty sure, if alive today, Mr Douglas would be on Twitter, Facebook, etc., saying "Universal healthcare? What about out-of-hospital prescription drugs, physiotherapy, home care, dental care, and what about the needs of those with addictions and mental diseases and conditions?" Publicly-funded healthcare in Canada is alive but it is not well. He would be neither satisfied nor pleased.


Note: Please enter a display name. Your email address will not be publically displayed