St. Joe's hires "co-op army" to become leader in digital healthcare

Monday, January 8, 2018

outdoor shot of St Joe's

When your supervisor tells you to hire 60 co-op students for a single work term, what goes through your mind?

You’ve been asked to hire for a major project – but only for the short term. Where do you find a team with the skills to support a major initiative and also the willingness to accept a short-term contract?

This was the challenge posed to Chelsea King, a project analyst at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. St. Joe’s tasked King with recruiting a large team for a major digital upgrade at the hospital – specifically, a team of co-op students.

"When I heard we needed to hire 60 students, I thought it was crazy," laughs King. But as a former co-op student herself (she graduated from the University of Waterloo’s Science and Business Program in 2017), she knew how to recruit the top talent.

King posted jobs at 15 post-secondary schools across Canada, screened 300 applicants, conducted 150 interviews and ended up with 58 of the best co-op students in Canada (including 35 from her alma matter, Waterloo). In just four months, this team helped St. Joe's become a fully electronic hospital, one of only eight in Canada with this level of technology today.

Affectionately dubbed a “co-op army” by King, the students helped launch a fully integrated, safe and secure information solution that places all of a patient’s information into one digital location. With a paper-based system, a single visit to the hospital could result in over 180 pieces of paper, creating a potential for error and inefficiencies. With the new digital platform, patients only need to tell their full story once, and all caregivers see that same information.

"The pace of healthcare, the information we need to care for patients, is really significant."

Dr. David Higgins, president, St. Joe's

The model used by St. Joe’s is certainly unique, even if you’ve hired co-op students before. Onboarding nearly 60 hires for an intensive four-month project may be intimidating, but Ross Johnston, executive director of co-operative education at Waterloo, says that support from fellow co-op students actually help them be confident and successful in their roles. He’s in awe of the work that has been accomplished.

"It's incredible, the courage shown by St. Joe's to take this leap toward becoming a fully digital hospital," says Johnston. "The value that students bring to the workplace is increasingly being recognized as an essential tool in the progression and success of an organization.”

And that’s a trend that Johnston sees across many employers. No longer does the term “intern” or “co-op student” conjure an image of a coffee-fetching assistant. Today’s HR managers are hiring for the true knowledge, expertise and energy that students can bring into the workplace. The St. Joe’s co-op students embodied this trend. They held a variety of positions including technical readiness testing, change management, data validation and training hospital staff on the new software.

Bharath Sritharan, a second-year Biochemistry student at Waterloo, worked in the operating room during live procedures, charting the digital process in real time as a training exercise for doctors and nurses.

Maria ValenciaMaria Valencia, second-year biomedical engineering student at Waterloo

Maria Valencia, helped run a technical “dress rehearsal” at the hospital. Valencia, a second-year Biomedical Engineering student at Waterloo, tested more than 2,000 new digital workstations. When a workstation didn't pass a test, her team would make the required changes to ensure it was functioning and ready for the system launch date.

Ross Johnston and Dr. David HigginsLeft to right: Ross Johnston, executive director, co-operative education, University of Waterloo, congratulates Dr. David Higgins, president, St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton

St. Joe's officially flipped the switch to become a digital operation on December 2, 2017 at 2:00 a.m., but the work of the co-op students didn't end once the system was live. There were six weeks of 24-hour support provided following the launch, supported by co-op students.

King says the co-op team has been up for the challenge, regardless of the unconventional hours and operation it required. "It’s not always ideal, and they don’t get a desk and an office at times, but they've been so flexible throughout all of this," she says.

Tara Coxon, chief information officer at St. Joe’s, isn’t surprised that the students are so adaptable. A strong proponent of the co-op experience, she knew that bringing in a large co-op team would get the job done. Her message to the students: "We would not be here without you," says Coxon. "You are an integral part of our team. You are key."

"We are so proud that our students have had the opportunity to make such an impact on this project." (Read more about Johnston's thoughts on how hiring co-op students can transform an organization.)

A thank you and recognition event was held in October with co-op students, Dovetale members, and University of Waterloo partners reflecting on their experiences this term. Take a look at the photos below to see some of the talented and dedicated people who made the Dovetale project a success.