University of Windsor health innovator Anne Snowdon sees light on the dark side

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell

With a warm smile and an easy laugh Anne Snowdon doesn’t seem much like Darth Vader, which is what some health-care colleagues teasingly call her.

Snowdon, who has three university degrees in nursing including a PhD, is a rare breed. She’s a Canadian health-care professional trying to marry the strengths of the private sector with the country’s cherished public health-care system.

“When I came to the (University of Windsor) business school the first time, someone from the health-care sector told me I’d gone over to the dark side,” said Snowdon, chair of the university’s new World Health Innovation Network and professor of strategy and entrepreneurship.

“It’s scary to many. Successful Canadian companies mean a strong (gross domestic product) and strong GDP means we have money to support our health-care system. We need to get over the private sector is bad thing.”

The former chief nursing officer at Windsor Regional Hospital isn’t advocating for the private sector to take over delivery of health care. Rather, she’d like to see injections of entrepreneurial spirit, research and the different way of thinking that comes from operating in the private sector.

Canada has little choice with health care expected to consume 70 cents of every tax dollar by 2030 based on current trends, she claims.

“We have a wonderful system, but it’s not sustainable unless we increase GDP, cut services or both,” said Snowdon, who came to Windsor from the University of Western Ontario.

Already recognized as one of the nation’s leading health innovators and thinkers, Snowdon’s reputation has earned her an invitation to address a committee struck by Britain’s House of Lords in May.

“What I’ll be sharing is some innovative solutions for people with multiple health challenges,” Snowdon said. “The House of Lords wants to know what we’re doing here in the Erie-St. Clair (Local Health Integration Network).”

The Winnipeg native knows what is possible because she’s living proof. Her work through the University of Windsor’s Auto 21 program led to the creation of the award-winning Clek child car seat in partnership with Magna International and what is now Fiat Chrysler.

“As a nurse, I was tired of seeing children die in car crashes,” Snowdon said. “The only way to change it was to prevent it. For that I had to go to the engineering and auto sectors. I figured out how to move the needle. That seat has won seven international awards and led to the creation of the Ontario child-safety company Clek.”

Replicating that on a grander scale by involving more business students and graduates in the health-care sector has long been the vision of University of Windsor business dean Allan Conway.

“We needed to find the right person and Anne was that person,” Conway said. “She’s uniquely qualified because she has connections in health, business and engineering. I’ll have a discussion with her about something and three days later we’re meeting with five people in Toronto about it. That’s the type of connections and energy she has.”

Snowdon said what drives her now hasn’t really changed much from her nursing days.

“I started nursing because I wanted to change things for the better for my patients,” Snowdon said. “That’s still my motivation, but now I’m doing it in a way where I can help many people at once.”

As the first health innovation network in Canada to have formal working ties with American and British organizations, Snowdon is connecting Ontario companies and health-care organizations with some of the industry’s heavyweights. They include the Mayo Clinic, Britain’s National Health Service, Kaiser Permanente (the largest managed health-care group in the United States), the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Arizona.

In addition, Snowdon is overseeing 15 health-care innovation projects covering virtually every province and her Windsor organization recently received a $2.7-million grant from the Ontario government to work with up to another 25 projects over the next three years.

By helping Ontario organizations connect with their entrepreneurial American counterparts new economic opportunities will be created, she said.

“We’re not very good at getting our innovations and technology embedded in our system in this country. We have such an aversion to the private sector (in health care) we don’t even try,” said Snowdon, who has lived in the area for the past three decades with her husband Bruce Snowdon. They have two adult children.

Her connections already have health-care companies exploring making new products in the Windsor region.

“A Vancouver-based company has created an infection control technology without using antibiotics that had a tough time getting into the Canadian market, but now 100 U.S. hospitals have adopted it,” Snowdon said. “The owner is now working with us. She and her team recently came to Windsor. It’s just been seven months, but there are two or three other health-care companies having that same conversation. They’re surprised our manufacturing expertise is more than automotive.”