Case Studies

Innovative Documentary Lets Front-line Emergency Staff Shine

Type: Case Studies|July 2015
Topic: Engagement
By Tiffany Akins
8 July 2015
Dr McKnight_Dr-Shirzad_Kelly_Photo Credit Erich Saide
Emergency department staff of Vancouver General Hospital. Photo credit: Erich Saide

Hospitals and emergency departments are getting busier as populations age and more chronic diseases develop, but in many places, health care spending is not growing in step with rising patient numbers. In the emergency department  at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) in British Columbia, one of Canada’s largest and busiest hospitals, staff and management are trying to cope with these challenges without the aid of additional financial or human resources.

According to Gallup survey results, these challenges were having a negative effect on emergency department staff, showing that morale and engagement was low, likely due to the pressures of stagnant budgets, increasing workload due to more patients and the day-to-day grind of serving a difficult clientele. There was also a pervasively negative portrayal of health care in the media.

The VGH emergency department is British Columbia’s second busiest, and its only accredited level one trauma center (a special designation recognizing the most comprehensive facilities and services). In 2012–13 there were 84,315 visits to the hospital’s emergency department (ED). Admissions have increased 13.5% since 2009–10.

Many studies show that having a satisfied, engaged workforce leads to increased productivity and better corporate outcomes. Companies with high morale outperform similar companies in their same industries by almost 2.5 to 1. According to researchers, morale is more influenced from the top down than from the bottom up. It was clear that we needed staff to not only maintain, but increase productivity to keep up with the growing number of patients and other demands.

The solution

Highlighting our staff as health care heroes in a televised documentary would help increase morale, boost engagement, and improve employee satisfaction, which can drive productivity, all while aligning with the organization’s strategic framework. A documentary series would push the boundaries of staff comfort and patient confidentiality, but if successful, could be an influential part of the larger strategy to increase staff engagement and morale, helping the health authority, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), meet its strategic priorities.

Goal: Leverage the documentary to increase staff morale, engagement, and satisfaction to advance VCH’s goal of developing the best workforce and our underlying value of “People First”


  • Increase staff satisfaction with their employer (VCH) by 10% by March 25, 2014
  • Improve staff morale by 10% by March 25, 2014
  • Increase staff sense of feeling respected in the workplace by10% by March 25, 2014
  • Increase staff sense that VCH’s mission is important by 10% by March 25, 2014
  • >50% of staff feel more appreciated by the public by March 25, 2014

Goal: Leverage the documentary to improve public affairs’ relationships with key staff to advance VCH’s goal to promote better health for our communities


  • >75% of staff agree to participate in documentary & 100% of management support the project by September 2013
  • >75% staff would take part in a similar project in future by March 25, 2014
  • >75% hospital/ED management satisfied or extremely satisfied with Public Affairs’ process & support during project and 100% would take part in a similar project in future by March 25, 2014
  • Have zero issues or complaints from staff throughout filming process by June 1, 2013

The documentary was an exceptional opportunity for the hospital and health authority because it would engage staff in an interesting, interactive and unique way and make them feel special. It would also be a first for Canada, and would educate the public about emergency care. We could use existing VCH communication channels to engage staff in an inexpensive way that would engage and educate the public at the same time.

We set out to make this a positive experience that would showcase the good work of our staff, and not add to their workload unnecessarily. Therefore, we invested time in practical, proactive communications that matched their stated means of preferred communication, to let staff and patients know what was happening before and during filming, and when and who to contact with concerns.

A winning campaign

This campaign won a 2015 Gold Quill Award of Excellence for employee engagement and was named “Best of the Best” in the internal communication category in 2015. For more than 40 years, IABC’s Gold Quill Awards program has evaluated the work of communication professionals around the globe, recognizing the best of the best in the profession.

We developed internal messaging based on existing qualitative research on staff. We wanted staff to feel appreciated and ease their concerns about privacy issues. We also wanted to reassure them that their workloads would not increase as a result of this project, and that participation was strictly voluntary. And we wanted them to know that the film could help decrease complaints from the public about emergency hospital care.

Since the front-line staff would be the stars of the show, it was key that we had their buy-in first, before we even agreed to the project. While a minority of staff was directly involved in filming—the documentary focused on a handful of staff selected via interviews—it would have a significant impact on them all. Staff buy-in and constant communications were crucial to the success of the project. We knew discussions with staff would best be done with the emergency department manager. The manager hosted a series of meetings with staff and included the film producer.

Watch the trailer for the documentary series:

With hospital leadership, we highlighted the film’s public education opportunities to help obtain their approval of the project. We also assured them that patient care would not be interrupted as outlined in detailed agreements in place with the film crew. Public affairs staff supervised the filming on-site for the first few weeks to ensure things went smoothly.

Leading up to and during the series premiere (December 2013 through January 2014) we blitzed all of our local staff communication channels, and published nearly weekly stories in our staff e-newsletter, VCH News. These stories reached the entire health authority, not just VGH, leveraging the opportunity to recognize and engage all front-line staff who work in similar conditions and struggle with the same issues related to morale, engagement and stress. We also sent these stories to the other health authorities across British Columbia., since the series could be viewed across the province, and we wanted to showcase VGH staff to their counterparts, further instilling a sense of pride. We used the e-newsletter’s most widely read section, “People in Profile,” to feature some of the more prominent staff in the series.

The results

  • Increase staff satisfaction with their employer (VCH) by 10%. The satisfaction rate increased (on a scale of 1-5) from 3.61 to 3.7, a 2.5% increase (2013 Gallup staff survey vs. March 2014 communication survey)
  • Increase staff morale by 10%. Achieved: The ED manager said morale has improved 33%; 63% of ED staff surveyed said they agreed or strongly agreed that morale improved.
  • Increase staff sense of feeling respected in the workplace by 10%. Achieved: Rate increased from 3.49 to 4 (on a scale of 5), a 15% increase
  • Increase staff sense that VCH’s mission is important by 10%. Achieved: The rate of approval increased from 3.39 to 3.85 (scale out of 5), a 14% increase.
  • >50% of staff feel more appreciated by the public. Achieved: 63% of staff surveyed felt more appreciated by the public
  • >75% of staff agree to participate in documentary and 100% of management support the project. Achieved: 93% of staff asked to participate or agreed to participate; 100% of management supported the project.
  • >75% staff would take part in a similar project in future. Achieved: 89% of staff surveyed would participate in a similar future project
  • >75% hospital/ED management satisfied or extremely satisfied with public affairs’ process and support, and agree to participate in a similar project in the future Achieved: 100% of management surveyed said would participate in future projects Achieved: 100% of management surveyed were satisfied or extremely satisfied
  • Have zero issues or complaints from staff. Achieved: Zero issues or complaints were reported.

The documentary series itself was highly successful. A total of 192,000 viewers tuned in to the first episode, making it the most-watched program in its time slot, topping major network shows, and the biggest documentary series premiere in the Knowledge Network’s history. The premiere episode of the series also had 120,748 video plays online. The series was so popular that it was renewed for a second series.

Tiffany Akins Tiffany Akins leveraged a career in television news to become a corporate communications and public affairs professional specializing in issues and media relations at a nonprofit health authority in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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