By Leah Geller
Christopher Wood believes team-based models of care are the answer for the Canadian health system
In 2013, Christopher Wood was serving on an expert advisory group examining primary health care in Alberta. Around the table were administrators, health-care professionals and policy-makers.
Wood was one of those advocating for alternatives to the traditional patient attachment models that are at the core of primary care. It was a contentious issue.
At every opportunity, he brought the discussion back to focus on the needs of the patient — a commitment that has guided his career path. “My experience has been that when you place the patient at the centre of the conversation, people can understand the value of having a variety of professionals contributing to that patient’s care.”
Wood put this thinking in place as director of health programs at the Alexandra Community Health Centre, located in central Calgary. “The Alex” provides a combination of primary care and Housing First support to the city’s most vulnerable citizens.
After getting his B.Sc. in nursing from the University of British Columbia, Wood’s plan was to join the intensive care unit at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, where he had completed a certificate in adult critical care. Job prospects were limited in Alberta at that time, so he worked for Health Canada in remote communities in northern Manitoba. The federal government sponsored him to complete a diploma in outpost nursing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, while he interned in northern Ontario and then worked in northern B.C. and the Northwest Territories.
Wood moved back to Calgary to accept a position as an NP — a first in Alberta — working with clients struggling with homelessness and poverty. Then, after stints in California and Vancouver, Wood returned to Calgary in 2006, to manage primary care for Alberta Health Services while the province was developing primary care networks (PCNs). One of the province’s objectives was to facilitate greater use of multidisciplinary teams, and Wood speaks with pride of his involvement in the creation of seven PCNs in the Calgary region.
He completed a master of health administration degree during this period to enable him to contribute at a broader level of leadership. “When I was working on the PCNs, and later sitting at the table with the ministry in 2013, I could draw upon my training in health economics and speak confidently on topics like supplier-induced demand, using the language that health-system administrators understand.”
Once the PCNs were operational, Wood’s job was effectively finished. That’s when the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself, he says.
On his arrival at the Alex in 2012, he was tasked with developing a clinical leadership structure. In short order, he put together interprofessional teams in four care areas, assigned clinic coordinators and managers, and built a collaborative care team model.
“The model is a consolidation of approaches I’ve seen over my career that use team-based attachment. It isn’t rocket science; it is tried and true and operating in many community health centres.”
At the centre is the patient or family, attached to an NP or a family physician as the primary care provider. Responsibility for the patient is shared with the other members of the core team: a social worker, an RN, a licensed practical nurse and a medical office assistant. That group is supported by an enhanced team of care providers such as massage therapists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, dentists and acupuncturists.
Wood further expanded the approach. “We knew we also needed to collaborate with other professionals who aren’t usually considered health-care providers. For example, we established a partnership with an alternative high school to bring in educators to help street youth complete their education. As well, we collaborated with the city’s recreation department to provide instructors for in-house exercise classes. Participants were later bridged into the city’s recreation programs and offered substantial discounts.”
He points to the Alex’s Seniors’ Health Centre — on the main floor of an affordable housing complex for seniors — as another example of right time, right place, right care. “Our clients go downstairs — in their slippers and pyjamas if they want — to get the care they need.”
“During the flood in 2013, we knew exactly how vulnerable these seniors were,” Wood continues. “We were running up and down stairwells in our rubber boots, preparing people to evacuate. We then used our mobile buses, which have exam rooms and a reception area, to go out to the evacuation centres, maintaining the therapeutic relationship clients already had with us.”
During the evacuation, the team saw evidence of addictions, hoarding and other mental health problems. “We developed a collaborative outreach team — with our NP and a social worker and a mental health clinician from other organizations — to start bringing care directly to seniors.”
Community means everything, says the proud Calgarian. He and his RN wife, Karen, spend their free time pursuing outdoor activities in the region. The couple introduced their three children to hiking, biking, skiing and camping at an early age.
Wood had already received ministry funding to roll out the Alex’s model of care to additional communities in Calgary, but health-care funding priorities changed following the provincial election last May. To preserve the leadership structure he’d built at the Alex, he decided to move on to other challenges.
Today, Wood is back with Alberta Health Services as provincial manager of tuberculosis services, as challenging a role as any other he’s had. TB is showing up increasingly in the newcomer community, he says. His work, with its focus on vulnerable populations, continues to excite and inspire him.
10 questions with Christopher Wood
What is one word you would use to describe yourself?
If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be less driven
What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Raising three awesome kids
What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I was in a Las Vegas review before going into nursing (long story)
Where did you go on your last vacation?
Kauai, where my wife and I went on our honeymoon 25 years ago
Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
What is your biggest regret?
Moving a lot
What was the last good book you read?
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey
What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
People are either cart horses or race horses; help them do what they are designed to do
Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
Every Canadian should have access to a community health centre that truly embraces the principles of primary health care