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

outdoor shot of St Joe's

When your supervisor tells you to hire 60 co-op students for the fall 2017 term, what goes through your mind?

"When I heard we needed 60 students, I thought it was crazy," laughs Chelsea King, a project analyst at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. King was given the job of recruiting co-op students for a major digital upgrade at St. Joe's.

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 best 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.

Thirty-five students on this co-op dream team were hired from the University of Waterloo.

Affectionately dubbed "a co-op army" by King, the student team was hired to help launch the Dovetale project, a new digital infrastructure for patient care at St. Joe's. This fully integrated, safe and secure information solution places all of a patient’s information in one location. Patients only need to tell their full story once, and all caregivers see that same information. This move will make St. Joe's a fully electronic hospital, one of only eight in Canada with this level of technology today.

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

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

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. Dr. David Higgins, President of St. Joe's, says that it's time to move from pen and paper to the digital age. "The pace of healthcare, the information we need to care for patients, is really significant," says Dr. Higgins. "A patient may be on 12 or 13 medications, have different needs, and even one error, even moving from one location to another, is a profound source of risk."

Co-op students were hired for 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. He says he faced challenges in his role. "I've seen some staff with a resistance to change, afraid the new system will be slower or compromise patient care," said Sritharan. He says he loved the sense of accomplishment when those same doctors or nurses got excited about the new software after interacting with it.

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

Another Waterloo student, Maria Valencia, helped run a technical “dress rehearsal” at the hospital. Valencia, a second-year biomedical engineering student, tested more than 2,000 workstations. When a workstation didn’t pass, her team would make the required changes to ensure it was functioning and ready for the system launch date. As a member of the technical readiness team, her work was essential to the successful launch of the new system.

Ross Johnston, executive director of co-operative education at Waterloo, says that hiring 35 co-op students in a single term may be unusual, but support from fellow co-op students can actually help them be confident and successful in their roles. He is in awe of the work that has been accomplished with the Dovetale project. "It's incredible, the courage shown by St. Joe's to take this leap toward becoming a fully digital hospital," says Johnston. "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.)

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 a digital state 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, with some shifts staffed by co-op students.

King says the co-op team has been up for the challenge, even with some work happening after 5:00 p.m. "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 (and another Waterloo Science and Business grad), 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."

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.