The medical field is rapidly changing, and those who enter it must be adept at working in a fast-paced environment while adapting continuously to newly emerging technologies. This is true for those working on both the medical and the business sides of the field, and as Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) chief privacy officer and general counsel, Steven Tam has found himself caught directly in the middle.
After law school and a short stint at a general litigation firm, Tam went back to school and obtained a master’s degree in e-business. From there, he got a job on the legal side of a software company before accepting the role of senior counsel at HSBC Bank Canada. His diverse background, adaptability, and successful track record made him an ideal candidate for an associate counsel opening at VCH, where he was hired in May 2007. In January 2011, he was promoted to his current position, and since then he has been hard at work putting systems in place that better safeguard sensitive patient information and help the company expand.
“In this field, diverse experience is very helpful,” Tam says. “I believe I apply all that I’ve learned in my previous roles to what I do today. My master’s degree in e-business helps with the technology and privacy side of what I do, while my legal and litigation experience helps with more contentious issues, like contract negotiations. At the software company, I learned how large organizations do business, and at the bank, I learned how to use policies to get all points moving together on the same page.”
The Road Ahead
A look at what’s around the bend for VCH
1. Data governance—or, overseeing how data is managed, used, and shared for provision of care, research, and quality improvement—is an area that Tam’s department will be leading.
2. The company is looking to update its many policies while making sure they are easy to read and access.
3. The Whistleblower program is still relatively new, and Tam’s department will continue to foster its development.
Tam, as it turns out, is very big on the three Ps: policies, procedures, and programs—many of which were ad hoc at VCH when he arrived. Previously, the business was made up of a series of much smaller organizations that didn’t have unifying procedures or even in-house counsel; according to Tam, there was “no perceived need” for such things. Now that the company has grown exponentially and all the smaller organizations are gathered under the VCH banner, though, Tam is working to streamline its practices and prepare it for further growth. It’s the best way, he says, to “get all points moving together.”
A distinct challenge of general counsel work for a health-care company is the depth and breadth of its portfolio and the particularly sensitive issue of health privacy. Since the advent of electronic health records, the public has become increasingly concerned about what is being done with patient information. Privacy-related initiatives take up half of Tam’s time, and he often personally attends to the more complicated or contentious complaints.
“I do this in order to understand the privacy concerns of patients so [that] I can find ways of addressing those concerns in how we interact with patients and how we manage their information,” he says.
Tam has also been instrumental in the creation and continuing development of VCH’s Whistleblower program, which encourages employees, should they witness misconduct or a wrongdoing, to file a report using the new Whistleblower hotline. The program is meant to provide a channel through which employees can report wrongdoing when existing channels have failed or when the complainant wishes to remain confidential. Tam says the program is essential to creating and maintaining a healthy workplace, particularly in a large organization where staff may not know how to make their concerns heard.
From a legal perspective, Tam says that true progress and growth in the health-care field must involve efforts to solve and prevent issues before they arise—a truly difficult task.
“You can identify risks on a case-by-case basis, but I’m always looking to improve systematic controls and the governance we put in place,” he says. “I realized we could deal with breaches as they occurred or work very hard to create systematic change. I look at policy as an opportunity to get our complex organization on the same page. I know people get bored with policy talk, but we’re trying to simplify our processes and make them more interesting at the same time. I’m okay with taking a more unconventional approach.”