“One of the things I learned very early on in my nursing career is that you have to keep people moving,” says Sharon Garratt, Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) Vice President of Integrated Urban Health and Chief Nursing Officer.
It was a lesson she learned at her first job as a nurse in a long-term care facility in Red Deer, Alta., where one of her responsibilities was to help people get to the dining room for meals every day.
“There was another nurse, and she wouldn’t let people ride to the dining room in wheelchairs. I thought she was so mean,” she recalls. “One day, I felt sorry for somebody and gave them a ride in a wheelchair and they never got back out. That’s when I realized, you have to keep people moving.”
Since then, Garratt has worked as a frontline provider in acute and public health, both in rural and urban settings, as well as a manager, director, executive director, vice president and board member in Saskatchewan’s health care system.
“I’ve been in the system through health districts, health regions and now a provincial health authority, and with each of those evolutions, there have been different opportunities,” she says of the roles she has held throughout her career. “I’m a very positive person who sees opportunities, so my career has always been about seeing a unique opportunity and finding out how I can contribute in a positive way.
“The greatest opportunity we have as a health authority,” she adds, “is to have a system that will meet the needs of our population by ensuring strong primary health care services in the community as close to home as possible. It’s my job to help our teams stay focused on what we can do to help meet the health care needs of our patients, clients and residents, as well as to support our patients to meet their own needs, when possible.”
As the Vice President of Integrated Urban Health, Garratt is responsible for making sure that primary health care, acute care and continuing care services in Regina and Saskatoon run smoothly. The services included within each of these areas range from home care in the community to the emergency department and medicine/surgical programs in the hospital, as well as continuing services like long-term care and rehabilitation.
Sharon in her garden at home.
Discovering her passion as a rural public health nurse
Prior to moving into the administrative side of health care, Garratt spent most of her career as a rural public health nurse working in and near Milestone, a farming community about a half hour south of Regina. She and her husband moved to Milestone in 1985.
As a rural public health nurse, Garratt’s main responsibilities were to do home visits in the community, where she met with moms and their newborns; to provide assessment, education and immunization in child health clinics and schools; and to teach prenatal classes and other parenting programs.
“You knew just about everybody in the community as a public health nurse: all the new babies, the moms and the kids at the school. It was a really neat way to be part of the community,” she says.
“I’m very passionate about the prevention side of health care because it allows you to see the opportunity for people to take control of their own health,” she continues. “One thing public health taught me as a nurse was how to provide patient- and family-centred care. I learned a lot about approaches that support people where they’re at in their lives rather than lecturing to them about what they should do.
“One of the words I don’t like is compliance,” she adds. “In health care, we often talk about people who aren’t compliant with their treatment plan. What we really need to do is talk to people about what they believe they need and work with them on a plan that will help them meet those needs.”
From the front line to health care administration and management
Garratt’s first management position in public health was in 2000, shortly after she completed a master’s of business administration.
“The reason I completed a master’s program was to help me expand my skills as an administrator. I had solid frontline experience, but I didn’t have a lot of management experience. The program helped me develop skills in strategy, finance and human resource management.
“One of the things I enjoyed most about the master’s program was that I had to work hard to apply concepts from the private business sector to the public health care sector. That was a really good learning opportunity for me.”
When the health system changed from districts to regions in 2001, Garratt became the director of Regina Health Region’s system-wide admission/discharge department.
“In this position, we did a lot of work on patient flow and bed management,” she says, explaining that she was part of a team to set up Regina Qu’Appelle’s Bedline, a way for providers in rural communities to connect with specialist care in Regina.
From here, Garratt transitioned into the position of Executive Director of Women’s and Children’s Health of the former Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region, and then Vice President of the region’s Integrated Health Services.
“These roles have taught me that you’re really only as good as your team and that we can achieve significantly more as a team than we can by taking action individually,” Garratt says.
Stepping into her new roles as Vice President
What Garratt likes most about her current role with SHA is the opportunity to make big system improvements and to build strong leadership teams.
“The other really exciting opportunity we have in our new system is to work in partnership with physician leaders,” she says, explaining that the new system is based on a dyad leadership model that partners administrative leaders and physician leaders in a complementary, decision-making relationship.
“In my previous role as executive director of Women’s and Children’s Health, I had the opportunity to work with very strong physician leaders as partners, and I learned a lot about the power of physicians and administrators working together effectively,” she says. “One of the things I’m enjoying most right now is my partnership with Dr. Mark Wahba in his role as physician executive.”
Currently, Garratt says she and Dr. Wahba are focused on system flow.
“Flow starts by ensuring that people get very good care in the community, so they don’t have to enter the acute care system,” says Garratt. “But if they do access the system, we want to make sure they flow seamlessly through it.
“In five years, what I hope to see in the urban areas is a strong foundation of services in the community that support people to get the care they need as close to home as possible. If we support people in their homes and communities, they’ll need to interact less with the system in the emergency department and acute care facilities".
Bringing her nursing experience to the forefront
In addition to accepting the position of vice president, Garratt has taken on the role of chief nursing officer. In this role, she is responsible for ensuring there is a nursing perspective on professional practice and clinical quality, as well as engaging with stakeholders both within and outside the organization in matters related to nursing practice.
“My role as chief nursing officer is really about understanding the issues affecting nursing practice from a patient perspective,” she says. “Nurses are the individuals who spend the most time interacting with patients, clients and residents. They constantly ask, ‘what does this patient need, what is his or her care plan, and how can I support or advocate for this individual to get the care they need?’ I think that’s one of the most significant roles a nurse can take in the system.”
Garratt believes in supporting nurses as members of the integrated care team. “The relationship between nurses, physicians and other providers is so significant, because it’s only when the care team is working together effectively that the needs of patients will be met.”
Garratt says meeting the needs of patients can be as simple as taking the time to listen and respond. She recalls an elderly woman she encountered while working as a nurse in long-term care.
“I remember spending a bit of time with this woman as a new nurse. She was tiny and struggling to meet her nutritional needs. One day, she shared with me that one thing she really enjoyed was head cheese. I was able to find her some, and the appreciation she showed as a result of having someone take the time to listen and respond has always stayed with me,” she says.
One of the ways Garratt juggles her vice president and chief nursing officer positions is to stay focused at the strategic level. It also helps that the executive directors who report to her and Dr. Wahba are effective leaders, she adds.
“They’re all very strong leaders, so my job is really to support them in their leadership roles.”
How she stays connected and active in her spare time
Garratt says one of the benefits of her new position is that it allows her to spend more time with her elderly parents who live in Saskatoon.
“I have responsibilities in Regina and Saskatoon, which means I get to stay with my parents at a time when I wouldn’t otherwise have had that opportunity,” she says, adding that her parents are a testament to the importance of continuing to move as we age.
“My parents still live in their home, walk around Market Mall in the winter, and golf and garden in the summer. Being active is something that has been bred into me!” she says with a chuckle, explaining that she also loves to golf, as well as hike, fish and ski with her husband and two adult sons.
The one thing she loves to do by herself?
“To be out in my garden,” she says without hesitation and a big smile.