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Advocating for the health of Albertans

March 5, 2024
Catherine Douglas, Health and Mental Health Advocate
Meet Catherine Douglas, Alberta’s Health Advocate and Mental Health Advocate.

Catherine Douglas has a big job—two big jobs, in fact. She is Alberta’s Health Advocate as well as the province’s Mental Health Advocate. Catherine and her team of professionals work at arm’s length from the Ministry of Health, striving to empower Albertans to be effective advocates in their own health and health care.

The Alberta Health Advocate was established in 2014 under an umbrella document called the Alberta Health Charter. It’s an aspirational document that conveys what the health system looks like if everything is working as it should. The charter guides the Alberta Health Advocate in how they work with clients.

Catherine’s team listens to concerns of Albertans about the health system or the care they have received, and supports them in finding ways to resolve those concerns. This includes referring individuals to the appropriate regulatory body, such as ACP.

We asked Catherine to give pharmacy professionals more insight into what the Office of the Alberta Health Advocates is all about.

Can you describe how the Alberta Health Advocate helps those with their concerns?

“It’s our job to make sure that if people have complaints, they get to the right place within the system. Because it’s such a large and complex system, we also have a large, complex complaints system. Often people’s stories involve many pieces of the health system, so we do an awful lot of triaging to point people to several organizations.

We also help with navigation. If someone hits a brick wall and they don’t know where to go next, we teach people health literacy—how the system works and where they should go from here. We also teach health advocacy skills, like describing good ways to ask questions of their health professionals. That could be encouraging folks to ask open-ended questions that allow a health professional to share their knowledge, skills, and expertise and create a real partnership.

We also perform reviews. If there isn’t a complaint body within the health system to complain to, and there appears to be a contravention of the Alberta Health Charter, we can investigate that situation.”

What do you do with the information you learn about through the experiences of your clients?

“Everything we learn from our clients is expected to be taken away and provided to all our partners within the health system. We express what they are experiencing within the system to try to improve the quality of care throughout the province. Our expertise is understanding what the experience of the patient, of the family, and of the community really is.”

How does your team support those who reach out?

“We listen carefully. We try to understand what the client wants and carry it forward in a person-centred way. The client might be looking to improve their situation with their healthcare professional, or how they continue through a process, or they might want to make sure no one else has the experience they had and improve things for others in the future. They may want to change policy or make an impact on a larger scale when they see a systemic issue that’s happening. It’s our responsibility on the front line to try to provide what the client is looking for.”

Is it common to hear from members of the public who have concerns about their experiences at a pharmacy?

“It’s not that common. When we do, we refer them over to ACP if they would like to issue a complaint. We do hear some positive comments about pharmacy teams who ensure patients know when certain medications are covered or not covered by insurance or explain what medication options might be available. People appreciate that.”

Can you put into context the importance of the work your team does and the difference you’ve made for Albertans?

“I don’t think any of us expect perfection every single day. What we do expect is quality health care. When it doesn’t happen, we want to be listened to. Many times, individuals don’t feel like anyone has listened to them. It’s important that they feel like someone has listened to their concerns and validated their experience. They also want someone to try to help them gain some control in a situation that seems out of control. I have an equation on my white board that says: ‘Listen + Try = Better.’ People are looking for ‘better’ in our healthcare system.”

Do you find enough Albertans are aware of the services you provide? What can be done to spread the word?

“We’re aware that there may be people who want to get to us, but they are not aware we exist. Or maybe they’ve had some bad experiences when they’ve complained to other bodies and don’t think it’s worth making a phone call. We don’t want people to feel that way. The only way for us all to improve is to hear about people’s experiences.

If all of you, as pharmacy professionals, could please let your colleagues and patients know about us. You’ll see more from us in terms of posters that you can download and print over the next several months. We appreciate it if you can help spread the word.”

For more information or to submit an inquiry, contact the Office of the Alberta Health Advocates.