Alberta Cancer Foundation

Improving Patient Experience

Photo of Michael Civitella, at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, by Jared Sych.

Michael Civitella began his path toward patient care at a hospital in his hometown of Montreal. In the summers between undergraduate semesters at McGill University, a young Civitella moved from one seemingly unrelated post at that hospital to another — a stint as an orderly, a job in the x-ray department, physiotherapy, the kitchen, maintenance and many others.

“I had quite a general orientation by replacing people who were on vacation,” he says.

This medley of roles was not random, but by design. Civitella recalls a particularly supportive human resources worker, perhaps one of his earliest professional mentors, who saw something in his curiosity and drive that was worth nurturing.

“For some reason, she felt I was sincere,” he says. “She tried to help me by placing me in different departments so I could get a better understanding of the system.”

Civitella was studying biochemistry at McGill, which he enjoyed, but he preferred tasks that brought him out of the lab. He liked working with people — he was good at it, in fact — and he liked discovering ways to make things better. When he researched a career in hospital administration, Civitella says he found his calling.

“Trying to lead an organization in health care and have an impact on people, on a community,” he says. “’I thought, ‘Gee, that’s probably what I’m all about.’”

Civitella’s parents immigrated to Canada from Italy in the 1950s — his father was a carpenter and his mother managed their three sons and family life at home. Neither had any formal schooling, but they encouraged and enabled their kids to pursue an education.

After graduating from McGill with a bachelor of science, Civitella moved to Edmonton in 1979 to attend the University of Alberta (U of A). At the time, U of A was one of the few schools in North America that offered a graduate program in health services administration. Acceptance to the master’s program was a huge accomplishment for Civitella, one that rewarded him with stimulating curriculum, world-class professors, and peers who eventually became colleagues, fellow leaders in the field and friends.

Among those friends and colleagues is Dave Bilan, a former VP in collaborative practice, nursing and health professions for Alberta Health Services. His 40-year friendship with Civitella began in grad school and has grown to encompass their families, as well.

When it comes to caring for patients, Bilan finds Civitella’s sincerity palpable.

“Patients and patient-care have always been at the forefront of everything he does,” says Bilan. “When you sit down and have a discussion with him [[about work]] … what comes up first is how to do better for the patient’s experience. He’s had a very long and successful career, for all the right reasons.”

Civitella’s career in patient care spans four decades and is bookended by two of the province’s largest health facility projects. In his first job following his master’s program in 1981, Civitella landed the roles of financial planning manager and executive assistant to vice president planning and development of the $420 million Walter C. MacKenzie Health Sciences Centre in Edmonton. He credits the late J. Gordon Pincock, his boss at the time, for involving him directly in the planning, construction and commissioning process. For a newly graduated Civitella, it was a master class in capital health infrastructure.

Following the MacKenzie project, he moved east in 1987, first to Winnipeg, where he was business administrator in the Department of Surgery at the University of Manitoba and its Health Sciences Centre. There, Civitella implemented significant change to the Clinical Practice Group, moving the department from a deficit to a $1 million surplus.

From 1990 to 1993, Civitella was the chief operating officer for the Thunder Bay Regional Cancer Centre, where he spearheaded the creation of a service plan as the cancer facility expanded. After three years at the TBRCC, he accepted the position of executive director of Wesway, an organization in Thunder Bay that offers short-term respite care to families whose loved ones live with disabilities or chronic health conditions.

“During that time, Wesway was ahead of so many other similar agencies in the world,” says Civitella.

He highlights his five years at Wesway as one of his most formative experiences. In 1995, he planned and hosted the first international conference on respite, now known as the International Short Break Association conference, as a way to exchange and promote best practices in care. The conference has since become a biannual event, and has been held in Australia, Canada, the U.S. and throughout Europe.

Civitella returned to Alberta in 1998 after Dr. Gavin Stuart, who was the director of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary at the time, hired him to manage the final stages of the centre’s expansion. Civitella spent 10 years in leadership roles at the Tom Baker, eventually becoming executive director in 2009.

For more than a decade, Dr. Peter Craighead, a radiation oncologist, worked in tandem with Civitella as the medical director of the Tom Baker. He valued Civitella’s talent as a “strategic thinker” as they improved the structure and function of the centre.

“His understanding of health care is very vast,” Craighead says. “He truly understands what it means for a cancer centre to look after patients.”

One of the many impacts of their partnership was starting the discussion and developing a plan for implementing a more formal tumor group model in patient care — a multidisciplinary group of care providers who meet regularly to discuss all care aspects of a patient’s plan. Made up of surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, nurses, and psychosocial team members, this group, with the help of designated coordinators, works together to ensure patients with any care-related concerns are connected to the right person at the right time.

“I’m a big believer in trying to individualize the care as much as possible,” says Civitella. “Rather than people fitting the programs, we can look at every individual and see how we can serve their individual needs.”

Today, Civitella is the executive director of operations and facility development for the new $1.2 billion Calgary Cancer Centre (CCC) design-build project, a role he has had since the project’s inception in 2014. Expected to be fully operational by 2023, the massive, state-of-the-art health care facility and academic centre will consolidate and expand cancer care in southern Alberta.

Civitella and his team are reaching the end of the design phase of the CCC, which began construction in 2017. He has worked with construction, government, administrative, medical and patient groups to identify the requirements for all programs, departments, and services in the new facility, and to make sure those requirements are reflected in the design. Over the next three and a half years, the team will begin the crucial operational planning phase, where they develop the centre’s overall operational plan, determining how staff and patients will experience their new environment. It’s a challenging undertaking but, as Civitella puts it, it’s fundamentally about working with people and finding ways to make things better.

“In health care, you’re part of different teams. Some you lead, some you support. It doesn’t matter what my title is, I have to make sure that I’m part of a strong team,” he says. “I’ve been blessed in terms of being able to have some great people to make a big difference for the cancer community here in Calgary.”

The new Calgary Cancer Centre is estimated to take occupancy in 2023. Civitella imagines those first days: He sees a world-class building that accommodates research, education, and patient and family-centred care; staff who are supported and strengthened by their new space; and patients who “feel as though they’re being looked after even better than before” in their cancer care journey.

The completion of the CCC will likely coincide with Civitella’s retirement, which he says he will use to do more of what he loves: spending time with his wife, children and two grandsons, and pursing hobbies such as sports, travel, pottery, wine-making, and cooking. In a moment of reflection, Civitella says, (albeit hesitantly) that he is proud of his role in improving patient experience in Alberta and Canada throughout his career. He is also quick to credits others — his mentors, his peers, his family and friends, the HR person who saw something in him when he was young and, especially, his parents.

“I was so fortunate to have loving parents,” he says. “They did everything they could to encourage me.”

For Civitella, it has never been a question of whether he, or any of us, can make things better. It’s just a matter how to get there. He says his late mother lived by this belief.

“She had little to give, but gave a lot,” he says. “I think that would be the thing I remember about her. You can give in so many ways to make a difference.”

Civitella helped raise more than $100,000 for the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer. Photo by Jared Sych.

Major Career Highlights

1993-1998: Executive director at Wesway, a respite care provider in Thunder Bay, Ont. Led a system-wide redesign process, earning the organization international recognition in delivering individualized services for families.

1999-2014: Various leadership roles at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, including managing the rapid growth that followed the centre’s expansion and working to develop its acclaimed academic program.

2012-2016: Participant in five Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer rides as a member and former team captain of the Tom Baker Cancer Conqueror team, raising more than $100,000 for the team.

2012-2016: Executive director of operations and facility development at the Calgary Cancer Centre, supporting the journey of the new facility in Calgary, which will enhance the patient and staff experience.