By now you must be all too familiar with the challenges facing our health system. And by now you’ve probably also heard that innovation and quality improvement is the way forward for health system transformation. The question is, how do we approach this in practice?  Where do we start?  For me the answer is simple: people.  For innovation to be adopted within health systems on the scale that is needed, it will take a “leadership army” of individuals with an unique combination of skills, and education with a broad range of perspectives, who work collaboratively within inter-professional teams to lead innovation.    There is growing evidence to support the value of this team-based approach, which begs the question, why aren’t we training and educating future leaders within team environments so that when they enter the workforce, collaborating in cross-disciplinary teams is not a new concept?

Currently, university programs rely heavily on insular models of learning whereby each discipline is housed separately, taught in classrooms autonomously and with little or no interaction with other disciplines. Students graduating from these programs are then expected to work productively in health care teams without any previous opportunity to learn from the ideas and models each professional perspective has to offer. Education of this sort is not only outdated, it perpetuates non-collaborative practices for which patients ultimately pay the price, as evidenced by Canada’s low rankings on health quality when compared to other OECD countries.   University programs must prepare future health system leaders early, commencing in first year, so that students are socialized towards inter-professional models of practice, which are likely to be effective in leading innovation and change.

Students need education programs that reach beyond the traditional practice competencies of health disciplines, including those which are foundational to innovation.  Strategy, entrepreneurship, finance, organizational behavior, health economics, and consumer marketing are all skills that are taught in core courses in business schools; however, they are not routinely offered to students in health disciplines.  Despite health systems being the largest “business” in Canada, business schools are generally not active in health sector innovation. 

This disconnect extends beyond health disciplines. Engineering and computer science are the bedrock of innovative technologies for health systems.  However, students in these streams create technologies of the future with no formal education opportunities to learn with the very students in health disciplines who will be integrating process redesign and technologies into their practices. How can we expect our engineers and computer scientists to create systems that meet clinical needs if they never have the chance to learn about those needs?

Post-secondary institutions must respond by developing strategies for inter-professional education. At our Centre, we have addressed this need by creating “health innovation projects”, whereby students work in cross-disciplinary teams in collaboration with the public health sector and industry partners to develop solutions to real-world health system problems. Project teams include students from IT, engineering, faculties of medicine and business, working together on health system challenges, such as the introduction of personal health records in primary care settings.

Now is the time for post-secondary institutions to take action in order to ensure future health system leaders graduate with the skills they need to transform our health system into one that can better serve Canadians, today and tomorrow.