Ann Colbourne Profile

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Ann Colbourne (Newfoundland & Corpus Christi 1980) is the Senior Medical Director of Culture, Transformation and Innovation at the Alberta Health Services. She is also the Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Alberta. Ann has served in a variety of roles as a clinician, academic and health care leader including work at the Mayo Clinic, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Canadian Diabetes Association. In 2011, she received the Mayo Clinic Plummer Society Award of Excellence, as the first woman and the first international recipient of the award. Ann holds an MD, BMedSc and BSc in Biochemistry from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and an MA in Theology from the University of Oxford.

Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What experiences were significant for you?

Ann Colbourne: My time at Oxford was inspiring. It was also a very emotional time. Oxford was a very different kind of learning environment and culturally different from the academic world I’d been in before. In many ways, I felt that the people around me at Oxford were somehow smarter than me, and so just by being there I was enriched! It was a very vibrant intellectual community, and a place with rich history. And for me, it was a place to explore choices and to do new and different things.  

Rhodes Project: While at Oxford, you read for the MA in Theology. What drew you to this area of study, and how has it shaped your experiences since then?

Ann Colbourne: I had actually intended to read for a different degree at Oxford, but I decided to switch into theology once I arrived. At the time, I felt most curious about faith and doctrine and the institution of religion. I was reflecting on my own belief system, and so I just wanted to know more and go deeper. It gave me a way to pursue an academic area that was very different from my science background, and the experience taught me a different way of thinking and learning—posing questions and answering them. It was very much a personal journey, and the scholarship afforded me the opportunity to step outside the mold of what I thought I was.

Rhodes Project: What inspired your interest in medicine? Over the course of your career, you have had a wide range of experiences in medical practice, education, research and administration. How has this trajectory unfolded and what drew you to these areas?

Ann Colbourne: Ever since I was very young, I always said I was going to be a doctor and I have no idea where it came from. There were no physicians in the family, no nurses in the immediate family. I would say the driving force was this sense of purpose and service, and the ability to actually care for others. And what I really liked about medicine as a discipline was the diversity of opportunities that came with it. There are many choices clinically, but once you enter a clinical pathway, there are then opportunities to take knowledge and shape it and educate others—sort of an empowerment agenda. I would say I’m not really a researcher, I’m more of an innovator. I’m curious about things, about why we do things a certain way, and whether we could do them better or more meaningfully in a different way. I think this curiosity has led me to leadership roles and more recently senior administrative roles. These roles require clinical knowledge but also a focus on how systems work at a macro level.

Rhodes Project: You are presently the Senior Medical Director of Culture, Transformation and Innovation at the Alberta Health Services. Can you tell me about your current work, and what issues are top-of-mind for you?

Ann Colbourne: The essence of this work is meaningful care. We are striving to deliver a health care system that is actually able to meet the people where they are with what they need in a way that’s important to them. Today, our health care system is very provider-centric. It tends to be more about how providers work and what is convenient to them, but in the 21st century, I think a lot of this is anachronistic; out of step with time. We are highly empowered from a technology point of view, but we are not preserving the face-to-face kind of encounters for when people truly need that human element. So the purpose of my role to some extent is about peeling all these layers off and going back to the basics—back to the essence of care. And then we want to reshape technology around this essence to support what is important to people.

Rhodes Project: Transforming health care processes into ‘interprofessional integrated plans’ has been a significant part of your focus. Why is it important for health care to move in this direction?

Ann Colbourne: The system today is very fragmented. If you look all over the world, you’ll see different paradigms for how health systems are structured, but the bottom line is that they are all still very fragmented. The notion in my mind is that, from birth to death, we all have a health journey and that needs to be seen as a whole entity. On any given day, no matter how I interact with the system, whoever I interact with should be mindful of my other interactions with the system and the implications for my health.

Rhodes Project: What have been some of the most personally significant projects you have worked on? What experiences do you take pride in?

Ann Colbourne: Whether it was rowing while at Oxford or leading an undergraduate medical education initiative in Newfoundland or structuring a tele-health program for persons living with Type 1 Diabetes, I think the significance in these experiences has been pushing the notion of what is possible for me. By this I mean imagining the future destination, setting stretch goals and recruiting willing people to come along for the journey. Daring to go into unknown spaces—spaces where we’re not used to playing—is important. Just because somebody has never done it doesn’t mean we can’t do it. Along with this comes the reflection on and celebration of where we have been in order to inform where we need to go. 

Rhodes Project: Reflecting back on your experiences, what advice would you give to women who are in the early stages of their careers with an interest in medicine?

Ann Colbourne: First and foremost, the key advice I would give anybody in medicine—and especially young women—is to believe in your own ability to do things. Just know that you can. Medicine can also consume your life as a career, so I think also to be mindful of balance. Focus on work when you’re at work, but find balance with other things in your life so that it is not all-consuming. And, enjoy the diversity of opportunities that come with a career in medicine because there are so many different paths. You can do just about anything but it is useful to build on your strengths and really leverage them to the greatest extent to become everything that you want to be in your career.

Rhodes Project: Given Canada’s current healthcare challenges, what does good leadership look like to you?

Ann Colbourne: I think for me good leadership is really about being able to navigate the tensions between very transactional spaces and transformational spaces. For example, the socially-funded healthcare environment is a very politicized place, and yet to move health forward, we can’t be held to political cycles—we need to operate from a place of core values and a vision for a better way forward. So, I think good leadership is able to navigate this tension well, live in the paradoxes and always come from a place of core values.

The other thing that leaders need to pay attention to is just getting back to the basics. If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, what people need most is food and shelter. In health care, we’ve gone far down the path of impressive technology and we tend to give that a lot of glory. Yet, I think we need to pay attention to some basic issues and social determinants of health that probably have a far greater impact on health overall. We need to be more socially active in terms of working with other sectors to actually structure the environment in such a way that people will be healthier at a population health level. I think this is the space where the magic needs to happen.

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