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"I think of myself as the historian of UHN," jokes Dr. Charlie Chan, sitting in his office at the R. Fraser Elliott Building, surrounded by his various accolades and pictures of his loving family.
It's a fair description. The doctor has witnessed a lifetime of change at UHN—including the original formation of University Health Network in 1999 – since starting his first day at Toronto General Hospital more than 22 years ago.
Now, as Interim President & CEO of UHN, Dr. Chan, who prefers people call him "Charlie," reflects on how he got here and what this role means.
On the importance of rolling up your sleeves
"If you asked me in 1987 when I started my career, 'Do you dream of becoming CEO?' I would have said, 'Absolutely not. As a clinician, that would be the last job I'd ever think of.'"
But the same desire to make a difference that fueled Charlie's move into medical leadership more than two decades ago, now has him doing just that in this new role.
According to Charlie, CEOs and Vice-Presidents were once viewed as pure administrators. But he advises his colleagues to think again.
"Having been in healthcare for 30 years, I can tell you this: If you see an opportunity to improve the hospital or health system, join the team that can actually effect change," he says. "Rather than sitting on the sidelines and complaining, roll up your sleeves and help find solutions.
"So 30 years later, when I received the call asking me to serve as Interim CEO, I said, 'Yes, of course. This is my hospital. I've spent 22 years here and plan to retire at UHN. I want to help.'"
In 1995, Charlie joined Toronto General Hospital as an active staff physician – or as he describes it, "a regular hardworking respirologist."
But through an impressive track record and collaborative disposition, he was selected as Head of Respirology three years later.
As division head, the clinical Charlie became immersed in the world of hospital operations and soon realized that the Pulmonary Function Lab wasn't functioning efficiently. So he escalated the issue with then-Vice-President of Toronto General Hospital, Dr. Paul Walker.
In return, Dr. Walker suggested that Dr. Chan handle the problem by running the pulmonary function laboratory. But there was a catch.
"Your interest is in the pulmonary function lab. What's in it for the rest of us?" challenged Dr. Walker. "I want you to run the whole Thoracic Business Unit."
"If there's one theme in my life…"
As he recalls all of this, Charlie can't help but laugh.
"If there's one theme in my life, it's this: When there's a problem, Charlie Chan can choose to become part of the solution, or he can cork it."
Of course, Charlie accepted the responsibility of managing the thoracic business unit, but it wasn't too long until he faced another similar crossroad.
"As respirologists, we do a procedure called a bronchoscopy (an endoscopic technique)," he explains. "We were frustrated back then because we needed more access to endoscopy time for our patients."
Since this was a surgical support care issue, Charlie escalated his complaint to Dr. Bryce Taylor, the surgeon-in-chief of UHN at the time.
Impressed by Charlie's management of the Thoracic Business Unit, Dr. Taylor saw an opportunity just as Dr. Walker did with the Pulmonary Function Lab. If various disciplines and doctors were having issues with getting access to endoscopy time, why not have Charlie fix the problem by taking over the Endoscopy Business Unit?
Amenable, Charlie said he'd lead the endoscopy unit in addition to the thoracic unit. But history repeated itself as he was presented with yet another catch.
Dr. Taylor said, "Not only at the General. Why don't you do it at the Western, too?"
A natural choice
This pattern of problem solving turning into leadership opportunities would repeat itself over and over again during Charlie's career.
Eventually, he would become UHN's Vice-President of Medical Affairs, Quality and Safety; then Chief Medical Officer; and is now also Interim President & CEO.
While managing both roles of Chief Medical Officer and Interim CEO may seem daunting, those close to Charlie know that UHN is in excellent hands.
"One of his greatest strengths is his ability to juggle everything," says Dr. John Granton, Head of Respirology at UHN and long-time friend. "He's a natural choice for this job.
"He has a keen sense of how people work and an uncanny way of relating to them."
The two met while Dr. Granton was a resident at the Wellesley Hospital, the place where Charlie started his career in 1987. According to Dr. Granton, Charlie hasn't changed much since those early days.
"He's always been approachable. And he has always provided advice that's golden," Dr. Granton says. "Charlie's a very strong and effective mentor."
Welcome Todd Halpern
Dr. Charlie Chan's is not the only new appointment in the organization. In September, Todd Halpern was made a member of UHN's Board of Trustees.
Todd is the President and owner of Halpern Enterprises and has been in the fine wine and spirits business for more than 38 years.
Born and raised in Toronto, Todd is involved in a number of charitable and volunteer projects. He is the founder of the Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival, which benefits research at UHN. Since its debut in 2005, Grand Cru has raised more than $22.7 million in net proceeds for UHN. In 2016, Grand Cru was officially listed as one of the top 10 fundraising events in Canada.
Todd is the Chair of the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation's Billion Dollar Campaign and has served on the Foundation's Board of Directors since 2005.