Thursday January 27, 2022 | VICTORIA, BC [Updated January 28, 2022]
by Mary P Brooke, B.Sc. | Island Social Trends
“Thank you to my teams that I had the privilege to work with,” is how Dr Richard Stanwick led in about five minutes of free-flowing remarks today about his retirement as Vice President, Population Health & Chief Medical Health Officer with the Island Health Authority.
Then about 15 minutes of answering media questions followed, in a meeting room at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria this morning.
In his 26 years on the job, he is particularly proud of the clean air initiatives for which Greater Victoria led the way, a standard of indoor air quality that has set the standard in cities across the country including Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary.
To the media audience he made special mention of the late Barb McLintock (who passed away in December 2018 at the age of 68) who he described as “an exceptional journalist, great Coroner, and a champion of public health”.
Always a team effort:
“This was always a team effort,” said Stanwick, saying that there was “a whole cadre of like-minded people” working in public health. He noted epidemiology, environmental specialists and public health nurses, and the BC Centre for Disease Control, among others.
He takes satisfaction in “phenomenal memories” that he will take with him after this retirement. He noted today that he first was planning to retire at the end of 2019 but he became fascinated with a new virus coming out of Wuhan.
A year later he and Provincial Health Officer Dr Henry were taking the first COVID vaccine products that had arrived in BC: “Bonnie and I took our shots to show we believe in it.”
Dr Stanwick expressed having been amazed at how quickly the vaccines were developed while also saying how safe they are — that’s why he and Dr Henry made a show of it, he recounted, to give people confidence. The rapidity of COVID vaccine development impressed him. COVID vaccination “has proven to be or most effective tool” against the pandemic, he said most assuredly.
Dr Stanwick was first appointed to the position of Chief Medical Health Officer for Island Health in December 2001. He had been approached by then Capital Regional District (which became Capital Health Region, then Vancouver Island Health Authority, then Island Health) while working in public health in Winnipeg. He brought with him experience in pediatrics, inner city children’s care, and First Nations health issues.
Clean air, clean water:
Protecting the quality of air (from indoor smoke) and the availability and quality of water supply (for the region for the long-term) were top on the list in Dr Stanwick’s remarks today.
Those are among his proudest accomplishments. In public health, the goal is to play the long game as well as deal with current emergencies.
Dr Stanwick’s commitment to healthy living as related to our living environments will shine for decades to come through clean-air indoor spaces, working to preserve the watershed for Greater Victoria area water supply, and banning underage tanning-bed use.
The CRD’s Clean Air Bylaw came into effect January 1, 1999, making all indoor spaces smoke-free. Creating clean air was possible because of “bold populations, politicians and public health officials and experts,” Stanwick said today.
Commended bold politicians:
He further lauded “very bold elected officials who were willing to take a chance on the evidence that I supplied”, he said, adding that it was his job to make sure that “people who made the difficult decisions had the best available evidence at hand” to make their decisions. “I knew I was giving them the best information, realizing there were other factors that played into the decision,” said Stanwick.
Stanwick was proud to mention the restaurant sector that worked with him steadfastly to support the clean air initiative.
The clean air bylaw covers outdoor areas as well (such as patios, parks and playgrounds), noting that children gather in parks and playgrounds — thinking long-term about health of the population.
Dovetailing child health with public health:
Dr Stanwick himself is a pediatrician. Ten years ago he was president of the Canadian Pediatric Society.
“What we do for children benefits the rest of the population,” he said today. He gave examples of how children may get scalded by hot water but so do elderly people. Similarly, concerns about the flammability of nightwear, for children and also seniors.
Climate change coming into focus:
Noting the crises of the past year alone — including the heat dome, wildfires, and flooding from atmospheric rivers on top of COVID and the substance overdose crisis, Dr Stanwick says public health’s greatest looming challenge is paying attention to the public health impacts resulting from climate change.
“This has been a banner year, even without COVID,” he said today.
Stanwick pounced on the opportunity to advise the public about the looming heat dome on June 25 last year, one day before the forecasted record-breaking temperatures hit. He convened a media session that resulted in his messaging about the dangers of heat stress reaching islanders that day online and on the evening TV news. His attentive action gave people a bit of a heads up so they could prepare for what turned out to be four or five days of prolonged severe heat during which 569 people died as a direct result of the heat (50 of those on Vancouver Island, according to the BC Coroner’s report on heat-related deaths in BC, last updated July 30, 2021).
Water quality and also quantity are matters of concern. He notes how the snowpack is disappearing, meaning less water being available. Wells for water should also not be taken for granted, he said today.
We’re going to need “a cadre of people trained in these areas to address new challenges that have to be faced, because they’re not going away,” said Stanwick with his usual calm but clear-minded statement of important issues. That’s part of his trademark leadership style.
COVID is a game-changer:
Because of COVID — now entering a third year of pandemic, “so much more is going to have to be different… it’s a game-changer”. Dr Stanwick outlined how even though some of the changes have been “forced upon us”, opportunities for positive change lie within that.
He’s very concerned about the level of stress that COVID has wrought upon the population. He notes increased interpersonal violence and a reduction in civility.
He didn’t mention long-hauler COVID specifically (and long-term care not at all), but no doubt the continuing health impacts of people having suffered through COVID infection will have long-term impacts on people’s health and lifestyles, as well as the requirements that will be asked of the health-care system.
Amidst a recently widely publicized Island-wide doctor shortage, Dr Stanwick sounded sure about changes in how primary care will be delivered in the years ahead.
Life expectancy is lower now:
Stanwick is saddened that he is leaving public health at a time when the lifespan of Canadians is now seven months shorter than in the previous year. This is the first time there’s been a drop in life expectancy since Statistics Canada started keeping records in 1921 (after the last major pandemic), he said to frame his statement.
“The population has been so affected that we are living a shorter lifespan now,” said Island Health’s exiting top doctor. The stressors are not just the COVID infection itself (noting that the number of cases is way up) but also the increased consumption of alcohol, use of other substances (noting the ongoing toxic drug crisis that has high death rates in BC), and the many changes people have had thrown their way over the past two years of pandemic.
“The unintended consequences of COVID are contributing as much as COVID — as well as the opioid crisis — to this overall reduction of life expectancy,” said Dr Stanwick. This is not the first time he’s dropped a life-expectancy bombshell In 2016 he drew from his pool of statistics to share during a health presentation in Sooke that women in Sooke have the lowest life expectancy of women anywhere in BC, purporting that it might have something to with the men in their lives.
Leaving with a mild bang:
Bold stuff is Dr Stanwick’s stock in trade. He’s not afraid to speak his mind and obviously applied the weight of his beliefs to the many notable changes that became bylaws and behavioural changes on Vancouver Island and beyond.
So while his work has made a big bang over the years in many areas, his retirement fanfare has been modest. It was announced last November that he would retire at 2021 year-end, then Omicron reared its virulent head and he stayed a month longer.
Stanwick was modest today about his importance in the broader scheme of things, though his accomplishments ring loud. He mused that in a couple of months people will hardly remember his name. That’s unlikely. But things do move on. “Public health will never stop,” he concluded today.
Dr Stanwick implied today that he has no plans to leave Vancouver Island where the climate is enviable. His last day on the job is tomorrow January 28, right up to 5 pm.
He says there’s a lot of yard maintenance to do around his house. Sounds like a comfortable slow down is in the works.
But for a medical professional who is “drawn to commonalities”, most won’t be surprised if he lands in a role doing more public health analysis of some sort. That’s the Island Social Trends prediction for today.
Stanwick has held an Adjunct Professor appointment with the Faculty of Health Information Science at the University of Victoria since 2000.
After posting this article in our news stream, comments have been rolling in, with best wishes to Dr Stanwick:
- “Our thanks to you for making us a healthier region. You will be missed.” ~ Denise Blackwell, CRD Hospital Board Chair
- “Thank you Dr Stanwick for you commitment and leadership over the past 26 years. Controversial as some of your decisions may have been your decisions were always made based on scientific data and the health and well-being of our community. Well done you!” ~ Dianna Seaton, SD62 Trustee
- “So grateful for his work ethic, contributions, and dedication. I hope he enjoys his retirement.” ~ Shannon Tait
Public Health comments:
- Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry (January 28, 2022): “Today… one of my dear friends and colleagues is retiring. I want to give my thanks and gratitude to Dr Richard Stanwick here on Vancouver Island.”
- Island Health: “Dr. Richard Stanwick will be officially retiring from Island Health as of today, Friday, January 28. We thank him for his continued commitment to excellence, service & the health & well-being of the residents of Island Health.” [See Island Health Magazine article]
Thanking Island Health health-care workers (January 6, 2022)
Island Health looks ahead into 2022 (January 4, 2022)
Dr Richard Stanwick retiring at year-end 2021 (November 8, 2021)
First COVID vaccines in Island Health to staff, Dr Stanwick thanks media (December 22, 2020)
Islanders doing an exceptional job keeping COVID rates low says Dr Stanwick (September 25, 2020)