Dr. Verna Yiu named Alberta Health Services CEO No. 8 in 8 years – can she fix what 7 couldn’t?

Posted on June 01, 2016, 1:59 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Dr. Verna Yiu, who was officially named yesterday as the eighth president and CEO of Alberta Health Services in as many years. Below: AHS Board Chair Linda Hughes and Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman.

Sooner or later, you’d think Alberta Health Services would luck out and get a CEO who knows how to run an organization that large and complex – and maybe Verna Yiu the one who can do it.

Dr. Yiu will have to be tough, smart and diplomatic – a heck of a lot tougher, smarter and in particular more diplomatic than the seven CEOs who have preceded her in the eight years since the Tories led by premier Ed Stelmach created the massive organization the wrong way for the wrong reason.

HughesWho knows? For most Albertans Dr. Yiu’s brief appearance at a sparsely attended news conference in downtown Edmonton will be the first they’ve ever heard of her. Still, she gave the impression of someone who may actually be smart, tough and diplomatic enough to pull off this near miracle.

If she does, she’ll earn every free-floating Canadian Loonie in her salary of $573,841 per year. Moreover, it’s unlikely she’ll be loved by everyone if she succeeds at this herculean task, because no one can get any important and difficult job this big done without stepping on some toes, no matter how diplomatic they are.

Consider the previous seven incumbents in the top job at AHS – mostly not a particularly inspiring bunch with the benefit of hindsight, and a couple of real lowlights among them, but maybe that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. At times it’s seemed as if Alberta was running the world’s biggest gong show, as opposed to the nation’s largest health service.

But in fairness to the less-than-magnificent seven CEOs, AHS was not designed to be led by the faint of heart. That’s because Mr. Stelmach and his ministers created a monstrosity when they cobbled together the province-wide health “superboard,” as it was called at the time – a decision that according to Ron Liepert, Mr. Stelmach’s health minister, was made in single afternoon at a cabinet meeting. The goal has long been rumoured to have been to solve the political problems created by aggressive leadership in the Calgary Health Region.

The trouble with AHS is that it’s a reverse Humpty-Dumpty – easy to put together without much foresight or planning, but almost impossible to take apart without wreaking havoc. Anyone who tells you otherwise is surely a simpleton or a liar – and if he’s a liar, he’s almost certainly lying because he wants to create the conditions to encourage U.S.-style privatization of health care. Keep that in mind as we get closer to the next provincial election.

HoffmanSo, no, what Dr. Yiu has agreed to take on isn’t going to be easy, and it isn’t going to please everyone no matter how well she succeeds.

Still, if you ask me, Dr. Yiu, a U of A and Harvard educated pediatric kidney specialist who plans to continue her practice, set the right tone at her introductory news conference. Of course, she had a sense of her potential audience: she’s been acting president and CEO of AHS since the start of the year and has filled other senior positions within the organization.

Dr. Yiu was given a very low-key introduction by Linda Hughes, the former Edmonton Journal publisher who is the chair of the AHS Board, which was put back together by the NDP Government after the Tory Government sacked it in June 2013 for refusing to obey health minister Fred Horne’s highly political orders.

The Tories had their paws all over AHS from Day 1 in May 2008 until the election that brought the NDP to power on May 5 last year. Yesterday, significantly, there wasn’t a politician in sight. Personally, I’ve never seen that before at an AHS news conference, and I’ve been to plenty.

Despite having received more than 70 applications from highly qualified candidates around the world, Ms. Hughes said, “Dr. Yiu was chosen because she is the best person for the job. It’s an added bonus that she is known and respected within AHS and across the province.”

What she left unsaid is that Dr. Yiu is pretty clearly an executive who has the potential to work well with Health Minister Sarah Hoffman, the brightest light in Premier Rachel Notley’s cabinet. They might even make a good team, seeing as both of them are focused on the right things, that is, running the system well and getting good value for the public’s buck.

For her part, never mind the anodyne platitudes attributed to her in the press release, Dr. Yiu diplomatically recognized the good work done by others before she ascended to the executive suite at AHS, but she showed a little steely confidence too, suggesting she’s pretty sure she has the skills to succeed.

She also acknowledged that “we have a government that actually supports the organization and is invested in its stability,” which is certainly true, and pithily reminded the few journalists present at one of the more important news conferences of the past few months that “health care is a team sport.” While she didn’t say so, that team necessarily includes the government, and it’s a rare government that can work in that context.

So, if you ask me, this appointment looks like a shrewd choice, or, actually, the culmination of a series of shrewd choices, that has the potential to benefit Albertans.

Some of our neighbours may not be ready to recognize this yet, but their compatriots picked well when they chose Rachel Notley as premier.

Ms. Notley did too when she put Ms. Hoffman in charge of the health ministry.

Likewise, Ms. Hoffman did well to pick Ms. Hughes to lead the board.

And, no, I have not missed the obvious, that the string of sound personnel decisions up to now – perhaps for the first time in the turbulent history of AHS – was achieved by women … and not by Tories.

It remains to be seen if Ms. Hughes and her selection committee have managed this feat again, but it seems as if it is within the realm of possibility.

Dr. Yiu has agreed to a five-year contract. She has the option to renew. There is so much that can go wrong for so many reasons, but surely it’s about time for something to go right.

Let’s hope it does.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

8 Comments to: Dr. Verna Yiu named Alberta Health Services CEO No. 8 in 8 years – can she fix what 7 couldn’t?

  1. Sam Gunsch

    June 1st, 2016

    re: ‘if he’s a liar, he’s almost certainly lying because he wants to create the conditions to encourage U.S.-style privatization of health care. Keep that in mind as we get closer to the next provincial election.’

    Ok… fill in the blank time?

    WRP/ Canadian Taxpayer Federation – D. Fildebrandt
    PC – ?

    Reply
  2. ronmac

    June 1st, 2016

    In the end the appintment of a kidney specialist as AHS head may just be what the doctor ordered. The main function of the kidneys is to regulate the balance in the blood, maintaining PH levels, etc, and removing excess organic materials via the urinay tract. Sounds like the job description of a health board bureaucrat to me.

    Anyways, it’s nice to see this person hailing from our neck of the woods instead of being plucked from one of the four corners of the earth as has been the usual practise.

    Reply
  3. June 1st, 2016

    Dr. Verna Yiu is a person of good character. It remains to be seen whether she will be able to “lead change” for a very political, non-transparent organization. There are layers of bureaucracy carved in stone at AHS that need removal. Change depends on everyone -not just the CEO but maybe she will be able to shatter stone.

    Our experience as a family is that there are some areas of AHS with excellent performance records such as the child health centres where very good care is provided by hard working physicians like Dr. Levinsky at the Grey Nuns Hospital and by Dr. Lappa at the Northeast Community Health Centre. Cancer care can be very good but the wait times for surgery are too long. There are definite problems in the continuing care system that are not ameliorated or resolved by Patient Relations which needs a complete overhaul with an independent appeal process (independent of both AHS and Covenant Health) for citizens. I am not confident that Dr. Yiu understands the problems faced by families, patients and advocates dealing with problems in the medical and continuing care systems — even though she was in charge of Patient Relations prior to her appointment as CEO. There needs to be open government at AHS and this means understanding that patients and their families are partners in care; the unilateral decision making present in the end of life termination decision making process must be changed. We also need a recognition of adverse events, their documentation at hospitals and continuing care facilities and action taken when they occur. Just covering up such events won’t end the fall out from them.

    Patients and their families are not going to stay silent about repeated adverse events that the system covers up instead of deals with promptly. All audits and reviews of such adverse events as well as continuing care facility performance needs to be made available to us. We pay for it all. Why don’t we get access to this information? Indeed it feels that the taxpayers are the ones kept in the dark to uphold the myths of good performance and good governance; sometimes these matters are not true. Without revelation, review and remedy we will have adverse events repeat, fatalities occur for no damn reason other than system wide failures in intelligence and we will have myths of good work instead of the reality which is that sometimes bad things happen and we need to deal with these bad things so that more families aren’t impacted. Will Dr. Yiu do the hard work of dealing with the culture of cover up at AHS? I hope so. As I said before, she’s a person of good character. She might be able to do what all the other CEOs did not have the courage to do-which is change AHS, Covenant Health, the medical and continuing care systems so that it is indeed “patient centred” and responsive to families.

    Reply
  4. David

    June 1st, 2016

    It is a tough job and some of the previous seven haven’t been up to it. In addition to having a good understanding of health administration, the head of AHS also has to have a good sense of the political and a good understanding of Alberta in general. Some candidates in the past didn’t understand Alberta and acted as if they didn’t care about politics here (until it bit them in the cookie – sorry I couldn’t resist).

    As much as an outsider’s perspective is sometimes useful, I think only a person with some good inside experience can properly steer this unwieldy beast in a better direction. It is also helpful not to be facing yo yo budgets (up and down with the price of oil – as if people will stop getting sick when oil prices goes down) and not trying to maintain the PC and Wildrose fiction that spending cuts won’t affect service.

    Hopefully the new head will steer AHS in a better direction. After all, most of us depend on it for our health care and need it to function well when we require that care.

    Reply
    • Walter

      June 2nd, 2016

      Most people, and possibly even you and I, don’t understand concepts like “governance”, “strategy”, “management”, “objective”, and the list goes on. What gives me real hope, is the fact that I truly believe that:
      1. Dr.Yiu is not a political appointment
      2. She is committed to outcome improvement
      3. The organization wants her to succeed

      Reply
  5. Jason

    June 1st, 2016

    $ 574 000 salary is ridiculous. We turfed the PCs for this type of stuff. It’s not any kind of positive change if we continue on as they did.

    Reply
    • Walter

      June 2nd, 2016

      Unfortunately, even if you offered to run it (90,000 employees spread across something the size of France) for free, our health care system would reject you. In fact it would reject Elon Musk and Bill Gates, so don’t feel bad. It’s like expecting a hooker to run CERN’s collider. Not happening. People in the system are often life and death. The leaders goal is decide where how and what resources are deployed to deal with everything from “I bumped my head” to stage four brain cancer, to catastrophic epidemic.

      Reply
  6. David

    June 2nd, 2016

    It is a big organization, with a larger budget and more employees to manage than many corporations that pay their executives 10 or 20 times more. I would also say based on recent history job security is questionable and I am certain that was factored into the pay rate. Of course, a number of medical doctors make more than this amount.

    To those people that believe because this is a publicly funded organization we should cheap out on administration staff costs, I would warn you – you get what you pay for. If administration of this large and complex organization is not properly staffed and funded, then it becomes disorganized, uncoordinated and bad decisions are made that probably end up costing many more dollars than are saved by trying to cheap out on wage costs. Of course this is a complex argument (and a complex organization) which is perhaps lost on those that have a more simplistic view of the world.

    Reply

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