Anne McGuire wears red well. Dressed in an ochre suit overlaid with an autumn pattern, she offers a handshake. McGuire’s presence stands in direct contrast to the cold, wet inclemency outside. Like her suit on this grey November day, McGuire, the chief executive officer of the IWK Health Centre, recently stood out from the crowd, people on all sides of the highly charged emotional and political debate around the risk of injury and fatality for youth riding all-terrain vehicles.
In late October, after “very solid research” by medical staff was completed, the first step in the hospital’s ATV strategy unfolded. A group of IWK medical staff called out to the province to toughen its legislation governing ATV use by kids—that children under the age of 16 years old should not be driving or even on ATVs.
To show a “unified front” from within the hospital, McGuire held her own press conference to reiterate the medical staff’s points, a significant move because administrative heads rarely choose to question public policy, especially one at the eye of a political storm.
“The physicians and others have been seeing a tendency across the province in emerg here in the last number of years for increasingly serious injuries related to children’s use of ATVs,” McGuire says. “I know the docs well enough to know that they would think long and hard about how they’d want to advocate on this.”
While doctors use medical expertise, McGuire’s credibility appears less clear on the ATV issue, at first. But that was the beauty of it: someone from management, not a doctor, was speaking out passionately; the rarity of it turned heads, leading to pick-up by print and TV news.
Furthermore, McGuire represents the public face of the hospital, a figurehead of what “the IWK stands for … advocacy on behalf of children, women and youth.” She also acts as a conduit between communities in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, along with Nova Scotia, government, and a board of directors.
So, like all advocates and activists for change, McGuire knew the power of, and inherent risk, to speaking out.
“The only risk I saw was in alienating or making uncomfortable the province, the minister of health, the premier,” McGuire says. “Rarely would a CEO find him or herself in the position of critic of government policy. Government is our paymaster. They give us the money to run the system.”
Her relationship with the province remains solid in the wake of the comments. And, if the health minister, Angus MacIsaac, or anyone in the Department of Health felt burned by the hospital’s ATV opposition, they didn’t show it.
“This would not affect the department’s relationship with Ms. McGuire,” offers Department of Health communications adviser Sherri Aikenhead. “She was representing the IWK and its board and that’s her job.”
McGuire has received letters, emails and calls from families, including those with children injured while riding ATVs, from outside Halifax mainly.
McGuire’s colleagues took notice too. “Part of the mandate of district health authorities is to identify and advocate for issues of importance to health care, health promotion and disease prevention,” says Don Ford, president and CEO of the Capital Health District Authority. “Most of the DHAs were active in the tobacco file as an example of meeting this mandate.”
McGuire mentions Cape Breton Regional Health Authority’s John Malcolm’s advocacy to solve drug abuse, specifically OxyContin, in his community.
Expect to hear more of this kind of managerial activism, McGuire says, from her and her colleagues on issues such as childhood obesity and related health hazards. It’s all part of the shifting healthcare model to one of prevention, she says.
“I think you’ll find more and more of this … because we need to get ahead of all the issues that are facing us. We cannot continue to sit back and wait for people to get sick and treat what happens.”