First and foremost, Karen Earnshaw is a Registered Nurse. It’s how she entered the health care field, and how she sees herself.
Karen is also a senior leader in the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), taking on the role of Vice President of Integrated Rural Health. Earnshaw leads the team for the Southern part of the province alongside Physician Executive Dr. Kevin Wasko. They are part of the new dyad model, where a physician executive and vice president are paired together to co-manage the clinical portfolio and bring their combined expertise to the leadership table.
“My career has led me to explore many different roles over the years,” she explains. “This new opportunity in integrated rural health is something I’m really excited about.”
Karen Earnshaw, Vice President Integrated Rural Health
Karen’s portfolio covers the whole southern part of the province. Her work changes all the time, from hour to hour. It is never dull and very rewarding – a lot like nursing.
“I firmly believe the move to one health authority was the right thing to do and that it was the right time to do it,” she says. “We are just the right size in our province to become one authority.”
She is enthusiastic about her role as a leader in the SHA and is eager to help lead the change in moving to one health system.
“I am passionate about health care services and how they are delivered for everyone, including myself and my family.”
How did she get here?
“My very first job was as a waitress,” Karen says, “so I learned about customer service early on in life and that by putting in a little bit of effort you can make a big difference in someone’s life. That is really something that has always stuck with me in every job I have had throughout my career. You can be the difference in how someone’s treatment goes. By going the extra mile, you can make someone’s experience very positive.”
Karen started her health care career as a nurse in a physician’s office, what would now be referred to as a Primary Health Care Clinic.
“This was pre-Home Care, but I would go out and do house visits, baby clinics and whatever else was needed. I had the chance to make a difference and an opportunity to learn about what was needed to provide good healthcare for all ages,” she says. “It was also very important to be that person in the community and I was very visible in the care I was providing.”
“Family is my biggest success in my life. I can’t live without my family. I love what I do, but the reality is that if my family needed me, I would drop everything to be with them.”
Rural life is something that appeals to Karen, who lives near Indian Head.
“I like the stable life we have been able to have in the rural community we call home,” she says.
Karen married her high school sweetheart 33 years ago and they have lived on the family farm just south of Indian Head for the last 26 years. Together, she and her husband have raised two sons, who are both engineers - one is in Indian Head and the other in Saskatoon. They are also grandparents to a three-year-old.
“We love having him nearby in Indian Head and watching him as he grows up,” Karen says. “He is so much fun.”
While Karen was raising her boys she was very involved in her community, volunteering in many different ways with the organizations and teams her sons were involved with, both in and out of school.
“That’s just what you do in a small town,” Karen smiles. “You get involved in the community you live in.”
Now, Karen doesn’t have as much time to volunteer, due to her busy work life that takes her to many other communities across the south.
“It was always fun volunteering in whatever I could when my boys were involved in their activities. It was just part of our life,” she says.
Karen also loves the outdoors and living on a farm. She has a big yard and enjoys cutting her grass in the summertime.
“You can see the results of your work and the difference you made instantly,” she says. “I also love camping with my family and traveling when I have time.”
As she was asked what most people would not know about her, she said with a laugh, “Well, many people will not know that I used to own and operate my own travel agency for eight years. I love to travel and it was a great job to be able to do that. You wanted to be able to offer the best travel experience to your customers, so you had to check things out so you knew where to send people on their special vacations. Now I only have time to arrange my own travel, and there isn’t much time for that these days.”
Karen has had a long career in health care, and what she’s most proud of is her ability to connect with and represent patients and their families in the communities she serves.
“Patients and their families have so much good information to share with us about their experiences, whether they were good or not so good,” she says. “They help us to be better and fix the things that may not have gone so well for them and improve on the things that did while they were in our care. We can always do better and I know the relationship we have with these great partners will help us make the healthcare system stronger.”
Listening to patients and gathering their ideas for improvements is a powerful motivator for change, Karen believes.
Karen has been lucky enough to have had a lot of great mentors in her career, working alongside them and learning from them.
Quality improvement and improving the patient experience is something Karen is passionate about because she believes in the difference health care providers can make.
“Working in healthcare, you have the ability to care for people and work alongside patients and their families, and the difference you make has the most profound influence on them,” she notes. “Everyone uses healthcare services at some time in their lives and we want the best service for our families and ourselves.”
One particular encounter with a young mother changed how Karen looks at the health system. At that time, she was the manager of a small community hospital and her office was beside the waiting room. The waiting room was normally full of people waiting for lab services, dressing changes, a visit with a health provider or any number of outpatient services.
“One day, I could hear a baby crying so I went out to the waiting room to investigate. I found a young mother with a newborn and a three-year-old. When I asked her if I could help, she explained that she was waiting to see the nurse to have the baby’s cord clamp removed. She looked tired, like any new mom does, especially when you have another little one at home, and you’re married to a farmer and its spring. So, I sat with her to talk a bit while she waited. She told me that she had a busy morning because a home care nurse had visited to change her dressing as she had delivered this baby by C-section. Shortly after the home care nurse left, the public health nurse had arrived to check out the baby but didn’t have the equipment needed to remove the cord clamp that had been missed on discharge, so she had advised her to visit the nearby community hospital where a different nurse would be able to assist her with that piece of her care. I knew then how broken and fragmented our health system had become.
“As a registered nurse, I had been trained to assess newborns, change post-operative dressings and perform non-invasive procedures such as clamp removals, but our health system had become so disconnected that it was normal for patients to have three different providers looking after different pieces of their basic care.”
That patient and her story sparked Karen’s passion for change and gave her the determination to contribute to a single health system that supports patients to be cared for by high functioning teams, with all providers functioning at the top of their scope to care for patients and families as a whole, rather than fragmented services that are not linked and team members don’t know each other or the whole patient.
A typical day
When asked what a typical day might look like for her, Karen admits there are no typical days.
“I can never predict what my day is going to look like when I leave my house in the morning,” she says. “My day starts early with a bowl of Cheerios before I head out the door, and it ends late with lots of time on the road, travelling around southern Saskatchewan, engaging communities and our staff. It is exciting every day as I get to go out and build relationships, engage other leaders, sell ideas, remove barriers and empower people to come to the table with their great ideas for change. It really is my dream job!”
Karen’s main responsibility is to be a leader and a role model.
“I think the unique attribute I bring to the job is my diverse background in health care,” Karen notes. “There is really no part in the health system that I haven’t worked in, from front line provider to leader and everything in between. I have been involved in a lot of areas and seen a lot of changes in health care delivery over the years.”
What Karen enjoys most about her job is the fact that what she does changes from hour to hour.
“It’s never dull, and always rewarding,” she says. “I love having the opportunity to meet people and connect with them. It’s those connections and relationships that you build that give you a chance to make a difference. It’s important to me to be able to build leaders on my team who feel empowered to lead in this new healthcare system.”
Earnshaw has learned from other leadership roles that she has held that it’s important to listen more than talk, to have patience and resilience.
“You have to realize that you are a role model, and if you want to make change happen in an organization, you have to model and lead that change.”
Change in the system
In Earnshaw’s view, to be an effective leader, you have to be present and visible to those you are leading, so she tries to be there for all members of her team, which is difficult when covering such a large area.
“The hardest thing for me to balance right now is being in the right place at the right time, and the time it takes to get from one place to another. I want to be everywhere, and a part of everything, and I can’t always do that. It’s a challenge for me. I wish I had more time in a day.”
In her first year in her new role, Earnshaw has been working to build a team of leaders in the southern rural area.
“I want them to feel supported and have what they need to lead change at every level of the new organization. I hope that in five years we can have a health care system that is focused on prevention and health promotion and the integration of care into our everyday lives.”
Karen would really like health care to put more attention on wellness than on sickness.
“One of the biggest things we have to tackle is to change the focus from illness to health in order to improve continuity for patients,” she says. “The system we have now is very fragmented and hard for patients to navigate. It needs to be more streamlined. We need to put more focus on promoting good health, so people live healthier lives and don’t end up needing hospital care.”
Who would Karen invite to dinner if she could choose three guests, dead or alive?
“Johnny Cash, Glen Frey and Malcolm Young,” she says.
Why those three?
“All of them were great musicians from three very different genres,” she says. “But I think they would be able to find a way to play together and make beautiful music.”
She compares the hypothetical trio to what our health system is trying to do.
“We have very unique people with very different skill sets working in our healthcare system across the province,” she says. “Now that we have become one system, we need to find a way to leverage our best initiatives, ideas and improvements to make things better for the patients, residents and clients who will always be at the centre of our care.”