A few years ago, while sitting at her desk at University Hospital Southampton on England’s southern coastline, Fiona Dalton was pinged with an enticing recruitment email: Providence Health Care in Vancouver.
“I just thought, ‘Well, maybe I won’t delete that immediately. Maybe I’ll have a look at it,’” shares Dalton, sitting on the 11th floor of Providence Health Care offices on Hornby Street in downtown Vancouver. During Dalton’s six years as chief executive for University Hospital Southampton National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust, she commonly received emails from hospitals around the world that were interested in scooping her up. And although she was “actually really happy doing the job” in England, it was her sense of adventure, and the work to be done here in Vancouver, that helped her decide to pick up her life and move it to Canada.
“This role was probably the only city, and the only organization, that I would have left the hospital that I was working at in the UK for,” she says, seated at a long desk overlooking a collection of shiny glass buildings, with the North-Shore mountains peeking through just slightly. Dalton grew up in the Yorkshire moors, an idyllic-looking place covered with rolling hills—a decent match for Vancouver when it comes to natural beauty. She has always loved the outdoors. “A couple of times in my career I’ve taken a little bit of time out, partly to recharge my batteries, but also because there’s loads of other things I’m interested in life,” she shares, detailing her time leading volunteer hiking expeditions for underprivileged youth in places like Alaska and Africa, and even in Saywood on Vancouver Island.
With a passion for getting outside (a basic requirement for any new Vancouver resident) along with a substantial 23-year-long career in healthcare, Dalton took over Providence’s CEO position (previously held for 12 years by the now-retired Dianne Doyle) in April 2018. Managing a $1-billion annual operating budget and almost 9,000 staff amongst the 17 sites run by Providence, including St. Paul’s Hospital and the Crosstown Clinic, Dalton oversees the busiest emergency unit in the country, and instructs care and research for the most vulnerable of populations in Vancouver.
She attended the prestigious Oxford University, studying human sciences as an undergraduate at its Queen’s College. “It was a bit of a hippie course,” Dalton admits amusingly, explaining that it groomed her to approach medicine from an anthropological, historical, biological, and epidemiological perspective. “That honestly qualified me to have a really interesting conversation in a bar about anything,” she says cheekily, but it would also be beneficial to her career in hospital management. Upon graduating with honours from Oxford, Dalton was granted the UK’s respected NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme, moving to work in the country’s smallest NHS hospital and setting her on a trailblazing career path (in 2016, NHS Southampton, under Dalton, received the Digital Centre of Excellence award by the Department of Health, placing the hospital on the world map) that eventually led her to Vancouver.
Providence has many projects on the go, but one of its biggest is the construction of a new St. Paul’s Hospital near Pacific Central Station. “I don’t know anywhere else where there is an opportunity of a brown field site in a city centre where we can start from scratch and build a hospital for the 21st century,” she gushes. The project is estimated to be completed in 2022. “That is something which I think will make Vancouver stand out from across the world,” Dalton adds. “I think the values-based compassion, social justice, plus the innovation, is something I wanted to be part of—an organization that is changing the world.” Providence has provided care for Vancouver’s marginalized communities for over 100 years, in the form of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDs and the Heart Centre, as well as with geriatric facilities. And Dalton is visibly excited about HUB, a dedicated area for substance and mental health patients that rolled out earlier this year, and the Foundry, a youth-only mental health and social services centre that was adopted by the provincial government and has rolled out in multiple locations since its 2015 Granville Street inception. Dalton believes these initiatives will aid in reducing the substance abuse and mental health crisis rippling through the Lower Mainland.
She is clearly settling into her role as Providence CEO and as a Vancouverite. As the sun shines into her office, Dalton recalls some of her recent outdoor expeditions, from climbing the face of the Squamish Chief to kayaking in the Pacific. It appears hard for her to believe that she arrived here only a few months ago, a one-way ticket in one hand and the entirety of her life in the other. But she understands that after any great risk taken, whether that’s plunging through ocean rapids or moving across the globe, the outcome can be plentiful.
“I knew I would never forgive myself if I turned down the opportunity to come and lead Providence,” Dalton shares. “Even though it was a really scary thing, and I was giving up a lot in the UK, I’ll never regret it.”