Q&A with Heather McPherson

President & CEO, Heather McPherson, looks forward to a bright, transformative and inclusive future

Heather McPherson has a bold vision for the future. And that’s no surprise to the healthcare community. The President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital (WCH) is a highly recognized healthcare executive with a unique combination of experience across clinical, academic, administrative and health system leadership. Prior to her current role, McPherson served as the hospital’s Executive Vice President of Patient Care and Ambulatory Innovation and was named as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2018.

She set aside some time to discuss a few of the hospital’s achievements as well as her goals for the future.

You’ve spent much of your career at Women’s College Hospital and lead some of the hospital’s most transformative and challenging initiatives. What contributions give you the most pride?

There is so much to be proud of, Women’s College Hospital is an extraordinary place. The one thing that stands out for me though is how, over the last 12 years, we have completely shifted how we care for our patients. In 2006, we transformed from being a traditional in-patient hospital to an entirely ambulatory (or out-patient) hospital. This meant we had to rethink everything we did. We now provide clinical treatments, diagnostic testing and complex surgeries without requiring in-patient beds. We restructured our clinical programs so we can help our patients avoid hospital admissions and reduce emergency room visits.

Our role within the health system is to help people stay healthy so they can get back home and back to their daily lives. We like to say we’re a hospital designed to keep people out of hospital.

Part of that is understanding where gaps exist in the health system and what we can do to close those gaps so that patients have better access to the healthcare programs they need, at the time and place that is most convenient and efficient for them. So we are constantly evaluating what services are currently provided at in-patient hospitals that could be moved to an out-patient environment, and we then develop the models and processes to deliver that care with the highest standards of quality – that means the best treatment outcomes and the highest patient satisfaction.

What excites you most about your role as President & CEO?

It’s a really interesting time in the healthcare system right now and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to lead Women’s College Hospital through all the changes that are taking place. WCH has always focused on integrating care across the system and we’re aligning with our health sector, community and government partners so we can all work together to support people to be in their best health. I think that’s really exciting.

I’m also very inspired by the people I get to work with every day at WCH. The dedicated team of clinicians, researchers, staff and volunteers here are so passionate about what they do and they are the reason I feel confident that we’ll be able to take advantage of all the opportunities to develop even higher quality and more sustainable healthcare for the future.

WCH has a bold vision to revolutionize healthcare for a healthier, more equitable world. What is being done to make that vision a reality?

Part of it is being intentional about shifting how we design and deliver healthcare services. To do that we first need to identify which populations are not getting the care they need and then we have to develop new models that will meet those needs.

So WCH has developed over 60 clinical programs and services designed to support the diverse community of patients we serve and close the health gaps they experience. For instance, to help battle the existing opioid crisis, we created our RAAM (Rapid Access Addiction Medicine) Clinics—where people dealing with substance use issues can see a physician right away, without an appointment, because we know that immediate access to treatment is a crucial element in helping people with addictions.

And then, to ensure this service is available more broadly, we expanded that model across the province, so other clinics in Ontario can deliver the same care to their populations. Another good example is healthcare for the transgender community. Not long ago, there was no publicly funded hospital in Ontario that provided gender transition-related surgery (TRS). So we created a TRS program and hired specialized health experts so we can provide high-quality, inclusive trans healthcare for a community that has often been overlooked.

One other aspect to consider is that we know that there are many people who feel unsafe or anxious about walking through the doors of a hospital to receive care. That in itself is a barrier to health. Often it is the most vulnerable groups who never show up at the hospital. So we have to think about how and where we deliver care to ensure that our hospitals are safe, inclusive and welcoming environments. We also need to consider the importance of providing care in the places people live, so our healthcare providers often see patients in their own communities. It’s a really important part of providing truly equitable and accessible care for all our communities.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in the healthcare system and how is Women’s College Hospital working to solve it?

Most people’s needs in the healthcare system don’t start and stop in separate episodes, especially when you consider our aging population and the prevalence of chronic conditions.

One of our biggest challenges is figuring out how to support people with a continuum of care throughout their life span—that requires more than specialty services provided by hospitals. Our patients need social services, housing, community supports and home care. Pulling all of those resources together in a seamless and cost-effective way is not easy.

So at WCH, we’re working with other healthcare institutions to integrate care across the system so that different health professionals from various organizations can talk to each other and coordinate the total care needs of our patients.

How do you approach mentorship to ensure advancement opportunities for women at WCH?

I’m a strong believer in mentorship. I’ve had great mentors throughout my career so I know how valuable it can be. Today, there are still relatively few women in senior leadership roles in healthcare even though, when you look at the healthcare workforce, most are women.

At Women’s College Hospital we’ve always placed a strong emphasis on supporting and promoting women leaders—most of our clinical and administrative leaders are women and so are most of the Directors on our Board. But I think we can still do better, particularly in increasing diversity in our leadership teams. 

An important aspect of mentorship is ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and that there are opportunities for advancement for all people across the organization. For me as a leader, this means I need to help open doors in different ways to ensure that people who haven’t been included in the past are able to share their perspectives and talent.

When you think five years ahead, what do you envision for Women’s College Hospital?

That’s a big question because I think a lot will change not only at our hospital but within the healthcare system more broadly. At WCH, I think the biggest shift will be in the way we deliver care. We are working toward offering more virtual care and exploring what we can do with technology and digital health tools. I imagine in five years, many of our patients will not need to come to the hospital as often. 

They’ll be able to participate in virtual-consults with their clinicians, use specially designed apps and have access to tools like our electronic patient record to interact with their healthcare providers more efficiently and conveniently.