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At Unity Health Toronto, employees have access to lifelong learning opportunities, including a high-tech simulation program.Provided

More than 30 years ago, Sonya Canzian began working as a registered nurse at St. Michael’s Hospital, now part of Unity Health Toronto hospital network. Her focus was on providing the best possible care at the bedside. “Moving up and becoming a senior leader,” she recalls, “was not something I had ever thought of as a career trajectory.”

But rise through the ranks Canzian did. She is now executive vice-president, clinical programs, people and chief nursing & health professions officer at Unity Health, one of Canada’s largest Catholic health-care networks. She cites, among other things, Unity Health’s leadership and educational programs as key to her advancement.

“Unity Health has a positive culture of learning and development; we really invest in our people,” says Canzian, who has a master of health sciences in nursing from Charles Sturt University in Australia, a degree Unity Health helped finance, and currently holds an adjunct clinical appointment at the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto.

Unity Health invests more than $1.4-million in staff education and development each year. In addition, its academic education program supports nearly 6,000 staff learners and 4,000 students and trainees annually. Opportunities range from ongoing professional development to participation in courses, workshops, conferences, tuition assistance programs, grants, scholarships and more.

This focus on learning and development is foundational to the network, which includes three hospitals that, for more than 130 years, have been caring for Toronto communities with a strong commitment to serving those who are vulnerable. They include St. Michael’s Hospital, an academic teaching hospital that is home to world-class specialty care programs and three research institutes; St. Joseph’s Health Centre, a community academic hospital serving Toronto’s west end; and Providence Healthcare, a hospital specializing in seniors, rehabilitation and long-term care.

“Being part of a world-class health-care and research network opens up so many opportunities to learn and grow,” Canzian says. “It is our duty to be forward thinking so that our staff are well prepared to face new challenges and ever-changing environments. All of our full- and part-time employees have access to education funds to support lifelong learning and career development.”

Julia Lee says she has benefited from Unity Heath’s career-building initiatives as well. A respiratory therapist (RT) by training who joined the organization as a student RT in 2004, she became certified the following year thanks to in-house training. While working as an RT, she says, “there were a lot of opportunities for learning and development, including critical care rounds.”

Since then, with encouragement from her managers, she has taken on roles in research, operational readiness and as a patient-engagement specialist, plus educational opportunities.

Lee is now an educator in Unity Health’s Simulation Program. It hosts more than 5,000 learners annually to support clinical education, patient safety and research using high-tech manikins, task trainers and virtual reality.

“In my time here,” she says, “I’ve seen opportunities for growth for people in a variety of health disciplines that historically would only be available to physicians and nurses.”

Lee was able to take advantage of a program that, she says, “helped me develop the skills to become a better clinical educator and, for example, take on students in placement programs.”

Lee says working at Unity Health has also “opened my eyes to a lot of social determinants of health” – the non-medical factors such as income, education and social status that influence health outcomes. “Unity Health across the whole spectrum does a lot of anti-oppressive, anti-racist work with the patient populations we work with.”

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