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By Martha Holmen

On January 24, I attended the 19th annual CPRS Toronto CEO Award of Excellence in Public Relations luncheon. As a student in Centennial College’s corporate communications and public relations program, I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of how a leader dedicated to communications can influence an entire organization, and I wasn’t disappointed.

This year’s recipient of the CEO Award is Dr. Robert Bell of University Health Network (UHN). During his distinguished career in Canadian health care, Dr. Bell has earned a well-deserved reputation for strong, creative leadership; I was eager to hear his insights into how a culture of open communication affects UHN.

What struck me most about Dr. Bell’s experience is the importance of clear communication at every level of an organization. While the CEO Award recognizes Dr. Bell’s communication in an administrative capacity, he spoke passionately about how communication affects life and death in the daily life of a hospital.

Dr. Bell’s example of the surgical checklist used in operating rooms around the world was particularly fascinating. A surprisingly recent innovation, the checklist introduced the idea that everyone in an operating room should be introduced to each other. In operating rooms where the checklist is used, the patient’s risk of dying is cut in half.

It’s remarkable to think that clear communication, something that’s so easy to take for granted, can quite literally save lives. The surgical checklist is deceptively simple, but its effect on a patient’s well-being is extraordinary.

Dr. Bell also reminded us that good communication doesn’t necessarily come naturally; it’s a learned behaviour. Basic conversation between doctors and patients might seem like an obvious step to many of us, but it’s a behaviour that needs to be deliberately encouraged at every level of an organization like UHN.

As Dr. Bell has discovered throughout his career, the best communication doesn’t happen spontaneously; most of the time, it’s the result of careful planning. The importance of Dr. Bell’s emphasis on communication became clear in the video presentation prepared by UHN. Hearing from so many UHN staff members, I came to understand just how much influence a CEO like Dr. Bell can have when he embraces open communication in his words and actions – and when he works closely with his communications team, of course.

As CEO of University Health Network, Dr. Bell has infused his organization with a culture that values communication, and I can only hope that CPRS Toronto continues to find many more CEOs who share his dedication.

CPRS Toronto members can listen to an audio archive of Dr. Bell’s presentation on the members-only blog, here.

Photo credits: The Canadian Press Images PHOTO/CPRS Toronto