Residency Match Day: 2020 What our students are experiencing, and how to help them get through it

Anticipation is the title of a memorable Carly Simon song that tends to come to mind this time of year. That’s probably because that simple word nicely describes the prevailing mood of our fourth year class. What they’re anticipating, of course, is the results of the CaRMS match, which will be released March 3rd.  

The process by which learners transition from undergraduate to postgraduate medical education has evolved into a rather jarring and extremely stressful experience (a subject for another blog/rant). It has required them to not simply consider what specialties are best suited to their interests and skills, but engage an application process that requires strategic selection of elective experiences, preparation of voluminous documents, meeting multiple deadlines (twelve, no less), and commitment of personal time and expense to travel and interviewing which, for many, spans the country in the midst of the Canadian winter. And so, as you can easily imagine, there will  not only be anticipation, but also anxiety leading up to the release. 

By approximately 12:00:05 on March 3rd, our students will know which program they’ll be entering next July. For most (hopefully all), the anticipation will end with the exhilaration and satisfaction of having successfully overcome the process. For a few (and hopefully none), it will bring a realization that their efforts to date have not been successful, that this part of their journey is not yet over, and they have to begin again. They will be profoundly disappointed. They will be afraid. They will be confused. They will need the understanding and help of the faculty who are currently supervising their training, and much help from our Student Affairs staff.    

This year, we are again prepared to provide all necessary supports, but there are a few changes to the process which I’d like to clarify for both students and the faculty that will be supervising them that day:

  1. Unlike previous years, our Undergraduate Office will not automatically receive match results the day before the full release. However, students have the option of directing CaRMS to release their results the day before (March 2nd) if they fail to match. They can do so by going into the CaRMS website and providing the appropriate permission.
  • Any unmatched students who have allowed early release will be contacted directly by myself to notify them of the result. This is for three purposes:
    • to arrange for release from clinical duties
    • to allow the student some time to prepare for the release moment the following day when most of their classmates will be hearing positive results
    • to arrange for the student to meet our student counselors who will provide personal support and begin the process for re-application through the second iteration of the residency match. 
  • Unmatched students who did not opt to provide early release will similarly be contacted and offered the same support and services after we get their results on match day.
  • Because we may not have full information in advance, we have decided to release all students from clinical obligations beginning noon on match day, until the following morning.

I’d also like to remind all faculty supervising our fourth year students on or around match day to anticipate that your student will be distracted. Please ensure your student is able to review the results at noon. If you sense he or she is disappointed with the result, please be advised that the student counselors and myself are standing by that day to help any student deal with the situation and provide support.

Fortunately, we have an outstanding Student Affairs team which has been working hard to guide the students through the career exploration and match process, and will be standing by to provide support for match day and beyond.

Dr. Renee Fitzpatrick

Assistant, Student Affairs

fitzpatr@hdh.kari.net

Dr. Erin Beattie, Careers Counselor, ebeattie@queensu.ca

Dr. Josh Lakoff Career Counselor, jml7@queensu.ca
Dr. Mike McMullen, Careers Counselor, Michael.mcmullen@kingstonhsc.ca
Erin Meyer, Assistant to Directors, Student Affairs

The team can be accessed through our Student Affairs office learnerwellness@queensu.ca, or 613-533-6000 x78451. 

Thanks for your consideration, and please feel free to get in touch with myself or any of the Student Affairs Team if you have questions or concerns about Match Day or beyond.

I leave you, and especially our fourth year soon-to-be colleagues, with the lyrics and sounds of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation”:

We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway
And I wonder if I’m really with you now
Or just chasin’ after some finer day

Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin’

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=anticipation+song&view=detail&mid=7002C6B79C45414A5C8B7002C6B79C45414A5C8B&FORM=VIRE0&ru=%2fsearch%3fq%3danticipation%2bsong%26qs%3dHS%26pq%3danticipation%2bsong%26sc%3d8-17%26cvid%3dD7FD0E9B243D4486A65A727AAD4D261D%26FORM%3dQBRE%26sp%3d1

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Five ways to ramp up your teaching

It’s February, and despite the recent Family Day holiday, we’re still stuck in the depths of winter. Things are just a little harder to get excited about when it’s bleak, cold and snowy. Add in the task of teaching something that’s become routine, and the doldrums can be nearly certain to set in.

It can be a challenge for experts to teach introductory content. This can be further exacerbated by the cycle of teaching: each year brings another round of the same—or very similar—material. When the key advice of reminding yourself that while this is the hundredth time you’ve taught this, it’s the first time for these learners just isn’t enough, how can you get excited about teaching for the 101st time?

Here are five suggestions to ramp up your enthusiasm and freshen your teaching:

  1. Back to basics: What do you want your learners to know or be able to do when you’re done? Sometimes when teaching becomes routine, we’re in danger of losing focus on the goal. Make a quick list of your key take-away points. If you’re not sure, take some time to reflect and then make any necessary revisions to your teaching plan.
  2. Add some feedback: Add in some formative assessment either partway through your learning event, or partway through your sessions if you are teaching multiple times. This gives you—and them—feedback partway through to make sure things are clear. Formative assessment can be individual or team-based and doesn’t necessarily have marks attached. It can be as simple as an online poll to gauge understanding of a key concept.
  3. Refresh the page: Since the underlying concepts haven’t changed, it’s easy to slip into a rut of repeating yourself. Even if it’s new to this group of learners, you’ll be more engaged if you freshen your cases, or revise the background materials you assign. Is there something in the news or new research that’s timely and on-point?
  4. Toss in technology: It may strike you as gimmicky, but using technology can freshen “old” material. Consider incorporating PollEverywhere’s polling (which you can use for #2 above) or incorporating a short video for discussion. (I can set you up with a PollEverywhere account in about two minutes and teach you how to use it in 5-10 minutes).
  5. Ask for input: Bounce ideas around with colleagues, brainstorm with others teaching in your course. Ask your course director for feedback. If you’re the course director, that conversation can work both ways: ask for input from your team.

Keeping things fresh for yourself can help your learners. Your excitement and enthusiasm contributes to a climate of learning. If you’re looking for more ways to shake things up but you’d like some customized advice, get in touch with the Education Team.

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Why we teach. Why we learn.

What is it that motivates practicing doctors, nurses or any professional health care provider to take time away from their usual duties and obligations in order to teach young people whose goal is to one day replace them? 

In approaching that question, a few things are clear:

It’s not because they have to. There is no obligation or requirement for active doctors or nurses to contribute to the education of student learners.

It’s not because they need ways to fill their time.  There is no shortage of patients in need to fill their days with valuable work.

It’s not for the money. Educational activities are not a route to financial prosperity. In fact, time devoted to teaching is usually at the expense of time that could be spent in much more lucrative clinical work.

It’s not for the glory. Teaching requires most clinicians to move out of their “comfort zone”, engage activities for which they have little specific training or expertise, and subject themselves to criticism from learners who, it must be said, have high standards and expectations.

In fact, many days, it can be hard to find reasons. The day-to-day challenges can dominate attention and sap energy. They can lead to serious questioning and “why bother” attitudes.

And what motivates the students of medicine or nursing? Whether young or old, just entering medical school or in established practice, learning is a continuing, life-long pursuit. Although initially motivated by the need to pass examinations or receive various certifications, most of the learning that occurs through the career of a doctor or nurse is self-motivated and apparent only to themselves.

But then, once in a while, something happens to re-affirm the fundamental value of the medical education process.

Such a moment occurred last weekend in, of all places, a local supermarket. Two of our students, Alexandra Morra (Meds 2021) and Nabil Hawwa (Meds 2022) had just completed a busy day and were going about their grocery shopping when they heard a commotion in another part of the store. Approaching the scene, they came upon a number of people surrounding a man lying on the floor, unresponsive. Mr. Jim Morgan (who has provided us permission to share this story) was also shopping at that store that day. Mr. Morgan had suddenly lost consciousness and fell heavily to the floor. Alex and Nabil had never previously encountered a real-life cardiac arrest but responded instinctively. Relating the incident to me a couple of days later, they recall “zoning in” on the patient and going through their check list. Is he breathing? No. Is there a pulse. No. Start chest compressions. Call for an AED. Get somebody to call 911. Get the AED unpacked and hooked up. In doing all this, they found themselves working with a recent nursing school graduate who was visiting Kingston and was also shopping at that time. The three worked as a team, sharing a mutual understanding of the situation and common training in CPR techniques. There was no panic, no jostling for authority, no arguing. There was simply a common interest and focus on the welfare of this patient. An AED was quickly provided, deployed and a shock delivered with restoration of a rhythm just before paramedics arrived and continued the resuscitation which, we’re all delighted to report, was successful. Mr. Morgan was taken to hospital, stabilized and underwent cardiopulmonary bypass surgery two days later by Dr. Petsikas. Recovering in the CCU a couple of days later, he had opportunity to meet and thank Alex and Nabil, whose efforts and those of the (unfortunately as yet unidentified) nurse who they worked with were no doubt instrumental in his recovery. 

Medical students Alex Morra (L) and Nabil Hawwa (R) with Mr. Jim Morgan. Photo by Saif Elmaghraby

On reflecting on all this with me a few days later, Alex and Nabil remarked on how this incident profoundly altered their perception of the learning process. Suddenly, the long hours of work and effort were no longer merely for personal or academic achievement. Learning now had a purpose. A very real, tangible purpose. It also had a face. They now want more and are re-thinking previous assumptions about career direction.

In fact, I’ve found that students will, at some point in the course of their education and training come to what I’ve come to call the “magic moment” when something happens to make them realize that they’re now able to actually, personally influence someone’s life for the better. For most, it’s something relatively modest that perhaps only they are aware of – an accurate and previously unknown diagnosis, a test ordered that led to key information, a minor procedure well executed, comfort provided to someone in distress. For Alex and Nabil, that moment was quite public and dramatic, but all are significant, provide validation and motivate further learning as can no test result or external accolade. 

I learned of all this initially from Cheryl Pulling, who is a faculty member in the School of Nursing. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Cheryl over the years because of her leadership roles in education. Cheryl is Associate Director of Undergraduate Nursing Programs and so my counterpart in the School of Nursing. In addition to meeting in the context of various committees and interprofessional initiatives, Cheryl and I have an annual “date” at convocation where we have the great privilege of hooding our respective graduates. Cheryl also happens to be Mr. Morgan’s sister. 

Cheryl emailed me last weekend to let me know what had happened. She was communicating because, as a fellow educator, she knew I’d be thrilled to hear of this and proud of our students. Of course, she was absolutely right about that, but she was also expressing the satisfaction we all share in knowing that our efforts are yielding results. In Cheryl’s own words:

“While they are medical students, as a faculty member I am also very proud of them.  I know you would be proud if they were nursing or rehab students. We are a team in the FHS with the same goal of educating HCP for the future.”

How right she is.

And that, my friends, is why we teach.

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Focus groups: what they are and how we use them

By Theresa Suart, Educational Developer & Eleni Katsoulas, Assessment & Evaluation Consultant

Amongst the plethora of student feedback we solicit about our courses, you may wonder why we sometimes add in focus groups. What could be added to the more than a dozen questions on course evaluation and faculty feedback surveys?

The information we gather in student focus groups doesn’t replace the very valuable narrative feedback from course evaluations, rather, it allows us to ask targeted questions, clarify responses and drill down into the data.

Developed from “focused interviews” around the time of the Second World War, focus groups emerged as a key qualitative research tool in the latter half of the 20th century. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist from Columbia University, is hailed as the “father of the focus group.” (He died in 2003 at age 92.)

Merton used focused interviews to gain insight into groups’ responses to text, radio programs and films. Politicians and marketing companies soon seized upon focus groups to gauge voter and consumer trends. The Queen’s UGME Education Team uses focus groups in a targeted way to augment information gleaned from course evaluation feedback, course director’s meetings with academic reps and other feedback tools.

According to a briefing paper from Carnegie Mellon University, focus groups are “particularly effective” for eliciting suggestions for improvement. “They are also much more flexible than surveys or scales because they allow for question clarification and follow-up questions to probe vague or unexpected responses.” It also helps that faculty rate focus groups as “accurate, useful and believable”.

If you’re asked to participate in a focus group, only agree if you think you have something to contribute to the investigator’s project or purpose. (Sure, it’s fun to come for the free food, but be prepared to contribute in a meaningful way).

What you can expect when you take part in a focus group:

  • To be informed if the focus group is for research or curricular innovation (or both). Research studies must have approval from the Research Ethics Board and require specific paperwork to document informed consent. Curricular innovation focus groups are less formal, but will still respect confidentiality of participants. These might not have the same paperwork.
  • The facilitator to set the ground rules, and guide the discussion. Savvy facilitators will do this with a minimum of fuss: they will listen more than they speak. (But you can certainly ask for clarification if you’re not sure of a question).
  • A co-facilitator will likely take notes and monitor any recording equipment used. The co-facilitator may summarize after each question and solicit further input as required.
  • You’ll be asked specific questions, and engage in conversation with the other participants.

What you shouldn’t expect:

  • A venting session. This isn’t the time to just complain. A focus group is looking for constructive feedback and suggested solutions.
  • To always have your say: the facilitator may realize they have reached saturation on a particular question and will move on. This is to respect your time. (You’ll have an opportunity to send additional comments electronically afterwards if you felt there is an important point that was missed).

What you can do to prepare:

  • If the questions are provided in advance (this is best practice but not always possible on tight timelines!) you should take some time to think about them.
  • Be sure you know where the meeting room is, and arrive on time.

What you can do during:

  • Contribute, but make sure you don’t end up dominating the conversation. The facilitator will be looking for a balance of views and contributors.
  • Listen attentively to others and avoid interrupting. The facilitator will make sure everyone has a chance to contribute – you’ll get your turn.

What you can expect from data collected at a focus group:

  • It will be confidential. Different strategies are employed. For example, you may be assigned a number during the focus group and participants asked to refer to people by number (“Participant 2 said…”).
  • In a formal research study, you should be offered an opportunity to review the data transcript after it is prepared. (This is sometimes waived on the consent form, so read carefully so you can have realistic expectations of the investigator).
  • The end product is a summary of the conversation, with any emergent themes identified to answer the research questions.

What you can’t expect:

  • A magic bullet solution to a challenge in a course or class.
  • One hundred percent consensus from all participants – you can agree to disagree.
  • For all outlier opinions to be represented in the final report. These may be omitted from summary reports.

We’re always grateful to our students for donating their time to our various focus group requests throughout the year. These contributions are invaluable.

For course directors: If you think this type of data collection could be useful in your course review and revisions, feel free to get in touch. It’s one of the tools in our qualitative research toolbox and we’re happy to deploy it for you as may be appropriate.

Eleni Katsoulas eleni.katsoulas@queensu.ca

Theresa Suart theresa.suart@queensu.ca

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Why IP?

In 2010, the World Health Organization provided the following definition of Interprofessional Education:

“Interprofessional education occurs when students from two or more professions learn about, from and with each other to enable effective collaboration and improve health outcomes”

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Just need a large enough room, right? In reality, developing meaningful interprofessional educational events is, to say the very least, highly challenging.

There are a number of reasons for this, some logistical and others attitudinal.

The logistic challenges are formidable. Professional schools have separate and independently developed curricular content and scheduling. Finding common ground and common space within those busy and packed programs is akin trying to get a group of busy commuters to stop and pause as they rush for the train. Moreover, any changes have to be approved by three independent Curriculum Committees, all (very understandably) aware of any impact new programming may have on their overall program. They are also very cognizant of their accreditation responsibilities which require them to ensure “centralized and independent” control of their curricula.

As difficult as these logistic challenges may be, the attitudinal barriers are even more daunting. Many students fail to see the value, being understandably focused on their individual program objectives. Many faculty members, while conceding the value, feel it is something better learned passively within the clinical environment through role modeling, and that valuable dedicated classroom time is best spent delivering what they consider more essential “core content”. These attitudes undermine the commitment that is required to overcome the logistics. In the words of Nilofer Merchant, “Culture trumps strategy, every time”.  (Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2011/03/culture-trumps-strategy-every)  

Certainly, history is littered with partial successes or abject failures. During my tenure, I have personally been involved or witnessed numerous enthusiastic, well-intentioned and carefully thought-out approaches that have not achieved sustained success. This has been the case whether the efforts were local, or at the provincial or national levels.

Most recently, Dr. Leslie Flynn has been chairing a group that has again taken up the formidable challenge of developing a program of interprofessional education for the three schools within the Faculty of Health Sciences (Medicine, Nursing, Rehabilitation Therapy). They have developed an innovative and attractive program of learning events intended to provide both educational relevance to students of all three schools, and an opportunity for them to engage interactively. Their initial program offering begins this week.

Given the rather checkered history and recognized challenges, many might be tempted to ask, “why bother?”

A cogent rationale is provided in the preamble to the description of objectives that constitute the Collaborator competency in the CanMEDS framework:

Collaboration is essential for safe, high-quality, patient-centred care, and involves patients and their families, physicians and other colleagues in the health care professions, community partners, and health system stakeholders.

Collaboration requires relationships based in trust, respect, and shared decision-making among a variety of individuals with complementary skills in multiple settings across the continuum of care. It involves sharing knowledge, perspectives, and responsibilities, and a willingness to learn together. This requires understanding the roles of others, pursuing common goals and outcomes, and managing differences.

(http://www.royalcollege.ca/rcsite/canmeds/framework/canmeds-role-collaborator-e)

The College of Family Physicians takes a very similar position in its “Undergraduate Competencies from a Family Medicine Perspective” document:

As Collaborators, family physicians work with patients, families, healthcare teams, other health professionals, and communities to achieve optimal patient care.

The College of Nurses of Ontario describes the following in Entrance to Practice Competencies for Registered Nurses:

Collaborates with other health care team members to develop health care plans that promote continuity for clients as they receive conventional, social, complementary and alternative health care.  

Physiotherapy Education Accreditation Canada (PEAC) is the organization responsible for accreditation of Rehabilitation Therapy programs in this country. In Essential Competency Profile for Physiotherapists in Canada, an essential Collaborator role is described as follows:

Physiotherapists work collaboratively and effectively to promote interprofessional practice and achieve optimal patient care.interprofessional practice and achieve optimal client care.

It seems then, that we all agree on the concept of Collaboration. But even more significant is the alignment about the “why bother” issue. It’s apparent from these statements that our mutual commitment is based on a shared acceptance of a fundamental truism – that collaboration provides for better patient care. Agreeing to Collaboration conceptually is not enough and, to borrow from Hamlet, “There’s the rub”.  Those noble objectives ring hollow unless followed by deliberate action. That action should consist largely of what we have come to recognize as Interprofessional Education, or “IP”. IP is basically the walk that makes the talk. It actualizes our commitment to promote patient care through collaborative effort of all professionals whose training allows them to positively impact our mutual patients. It requires that we understand what others have to contribute, respect those contributions, and find ways to communicate and work together effectively.

We don’t commit to these efforts simply because they’re “the right thing to do” (although they are), or because fairness demands it (which it does), or because we wish to achieve accreditation standards (which we do). We commit to IP because, first and foremost, it’s in the interests of our patients to do so.

And that should be reason enough.

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Recent lessons in the meaning of Community

What does it mean to be part of a community?

This past week, two widely reported events should cause us to consider the very nature and meaning of “community”.

The first such event, of course, is the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in which all 176 people on board perished, including a large number of Canadian citizens and others with close ties to Canada. Because many were involved in educational programs of various types, the Canadian university community was hard hit. The response was immediate, unified and sincere. Within my own community of undergraduate deans, there was a flurry of emails and texts expressing concern and offering support. Members of the medical student community came forward expressing concern for friends and colleagues across the country. Although some schools were more directly affected than others, all shared in the sense of loss.

Particularly revealing is that the concern and response to this disaster cut through any issues of cultural or religious background. The victims were remembered not as members of any particular group, but as people we came know as individuals, with personal traits and aspirations with which we could all identify. Obvious differences simply didn’t matter.

Later that same week, we learned of the death of Neil Peart, a member of the legendary Canadian rock band Rush and arguably one of the greatest drummers of all time. Although a member of my generation, Mr. Peart’s appeal was not confined to any age group. In fact, it was my children who drew my attention to his virtuosity and expansive lyrics. When news of his death was announced, tributes appeared on social media from diverse sources – everyone from lead singer and drummer of the Foo Fighters Dave Grohl to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Beyond his great talent, Peart was an iconoclast who always engaged life in his own way with an authenticity and integrity that inspired a community of admirers, young and old. From an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015,  “It’s about being your own hero. I set out to never betray the values that a 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.” This spirit was a rallying call that held an ageless appeal.

The very word “community” has meaning beyond its reference to a group of people living in the same location. A deeper meaning, the one that came so vividly to light in the events of this past week is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

Tragic and sad events are an inevitable aspect of the human condition. Physicians and all health providers accept as a professional responsibility the support and assistance of individual patients and their families through such events. We are prepared and trained to do so. But when tragedy impacts the communities in which we live, we share in the loss and struggle together to find meaning.

These two recent events teach us that the concept of community transcends barriers of culture and age and helps us find some such meaning.

They remind us that community is about the forces that bind us in common interest and intent. Community provides unconditional support and strength.

Community occurs when we choose to focus on what we share rather than what separates us.

In the end, community is a choice.

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I have my faculty evaluations, now what?

Did you teach last semester? If so, you likely have feedback from your faculty evaluation forms awaiting your attention. Parsing out feedback from evaluation questionnaires is an annual challenge for all university instructors.  It was the topic of a Faculty Focus article by Isis Artze-Vega, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Florida International University. She offered solid advice for those of who feel angst over student evaluations

Dr. Artze-Vega suggests seven key approaches to responding to student evaluations.

  1. First, she advises faculty to analyze the data. The Education Team routinely does this for course evaluations for course directors and the Course and Faculty Review Committee, but not for individual faculty evaluations. Analyzing comments is a great starting point; otherwise, human nature often has people hyper-focusing on the wrong things. Are you reading an outlier opinion, or is there a theme in multiple students’ comments? “Identifying themes will help you determine whether they warrant a response,” Artze-Vega writes.
  2. Ask any actor or director and they’ll tell you: negative feedback is easy to remember. American film director Peter Farrelly has said: “With all of my films, if I get one bad review and a bunch of good reviews the bad one is the only one that will stay with me.” Artze-Vega cautions to resist the lure of the negative. Don’t automatically dismiss a negative comment, but “consider: Am I focusing on this because it’s ‘louder,’ or because it’s a legitimate concern?”
  3. Considering feedback this way flows into Artze-Vega’s third key: Let your critics be your gurus. Citing a New York Times article, she points out that, “we often brood over negative comments because we suspect they may contain an element of truth.”
  4. A fourth approach is to find counter-evidence to negative comments. You can look for or remember comments that contradict the negative one. (If your faculty evaluation report is anything like some course evaluation reports, sometimes, you’ll find these comments in the same evaluation report from other students).
  5. Artze-Vega stresses that “we should devote at least as much time to students’ positive comments as their negative ones,” so her fifth key is dwell on the positive ones. If you hyper-focus on negative feedback, you can lose sight of the many things you are likely doing well – and that students appreciate.
  6. To aid in this, she further advises to read them with a friend. “A more objective party can help you make sense of or notice the absurdity of the comments because they’re not as personally invested in them.”
  7. Finally, Artze-Vega advises to be proactive. “If you don’t conduct this analysis yourself, you’ll be at the mercy of whomever is charged with your evaluation—and they probably won’t be as thorough,” she points out. “Also, take the time to provide explanations about any off-the-wall student complaints, so that your reviewers don’t draw their own conclusions.” 

To all of this, I’d add: having read through your feedback, what’s your plan? What will you keep doing? What will you change? How will you do that? If you teach in the Queen’s UGME program and would like some assistance in using student feedback to improve your teaching practice, I’m available to assist you with this. Drop me an email. Reach me at theresa.suart@queensu.ca

Because good advice is worth repeating, this is based on a post from January 12, 2015

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Christmas wishes for our Medical Students – by the year.

Through late November and December, as darkness consumes more and more of our days, the School of Medicine Building seems to get brighter. From the outside, it seems lit for the season. Inside, the rooms and study spaces are fully occupied. It’s that time of year, of course, when first and second years are preparing for examinations. There’s also a sense of anticipation. Anticipation for the end of exams, to be sure, but also for what’s to come.

Indeed, all the world seems in anticipation as we approach the winter solstice, that moment in time when the combination of orbit and axis of the earth take us farthest from the sun and we receive the least daylight. But after December 22, the light starts to slowly return.

In the Christian tradition, this is the season of Advent, a time of expectant waiting and preparation. In the Jewish culture, Hanukkah is celebrated, known as the “Festival of Lights”, commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple. Many cultures mark the time of year in various ways, both religious and secular. For all, it’s a time that we instinctively wish to return to the familiar and comforting warmth of home. It’s a time to retreat, refresh, renew.

In the spirit of the season, I offer Christmas wishes for our students:

For first years, increasing comfort with their transition to the profession, with learning for the sake of learning, and for future patients.

For second years, deepening fascination with clinical medicine and comfort with multiple career options.

For third years, increasing confidence in the clinical environment and a growing sense of their own, individual roles within it.

For our fourth years, first choice discipline, first choice program, first time.

For all, a restful, restorative and safe break, and best wishes for the new year all it will bring.

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Pivotal Court Battle Raging in British Columbia: Should preferential health care be available to those who can afford it?

A rather fierce and highly significant battle is raging in the courts of British Columbia. At stake is the future of private payer medical care in Canada. Many feel that what’s really at stake is the future of universal health care in Canada. Pragmatically, the issue boils down to whether decisions about when and how patients get care should be determined solely by need, or whether those with resources should be able to access alternative routes, and whether physicians should be allowed to provide those alternatives.

The Globe and Mail

At the centre of all this is Dr. Brian Day, an orthopedic surgeon and former president of the Canadian Medical Association, who is the Medical Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Cambie Surgery Centre in Vancouver, which opened in 1996 and has been offering and providing services to insured and privately paying patients. It has been doing so despite (in the case of the privately paying patients) being in violation of the B.C. Medicare Protection Act, which prohibits physicians from working in public and private systems at the same time or, more precisely, from charging patients for publicly covered services. It also prohibits the sale of private insurance for medically necessary hospital and physician care (insurance is permitted for care not covered by the public system). It seems that for the past 20+ years the government has either made only half-hearted attempts to enforce the law, or simply “looked the other way”.

It appears that current governments are much more committed to enforce the letter of the law, and Dr. Day has mounted a challenge based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He and his lawyers argue that the Charter-provided right to pursue life, liberty and personal security extends to the right to pay for care when someone feels the public system doesn’t provide it to their satisfaction. They make it clear that they are not opposed to medicare or interested in dismantling it. They point to effective blended public/private provision in many countries, claim no evidence of harm and opine that it may actually benefit the public system by “off-loading” some patients. In their closing arguments (as reported in the Globe and Mail November 13, 2019) his lawyers claim:

“Allowing British Columbians to obtain private medically necessary services would not result in any harm to either the accessibility or viability of the public health-care system, as demonstrated by the experience over the past 20 years in British Columbia, when the prohibitions on access to diagnostic and surgical services were not enforced.”

“Further, the government cannot justify imposing severe mental and physician harm on some residents on the basis of an ideological commitment to perfect equality in access to treatment, which is neither created by the legislation in question nor obtained in practice.”

There is, as one might imagine, considerable opinion to the contrary. It comes from groups such as the BC Health Coalition, Canadian Doctors for Medicare, and many individual physicians and patients who have put forward rather strongly worded counter-arguments. They feel the presence of condoned private care in BC will set precedents for the rest of Canada and undermine the principle of universal care by siphoning physicians, nurses, therapists and technicians to potentially more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. In the case of physicians, they feel this is a betrayal of the publicly financed education they’ve been provided.

The case, which has been ongoing for several months, is now in the hands of BC Supreme Court Justice John Steeves who must decide whether the BC Medicare Protection Act indeed violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom.

This impending decision, indeed this very issue, is highly significant not only for those in the medical community, but for every Canadian. Medicare has taken on a special place in Canadian cultural identity. It has become a defining element of the national character, and a source of pride of all citizens. If there are any “sacred cows” in Canadian politics, Medicare would certainly be one. But its introduction and maintenance have been far from easy.

Chief among the challenges has been the division of federal and provincial responsibility and, therefore, funding. The British North America Act of 1867 establishes among the exclusive powers of provincial legislatures,

“the Establishment, Maintenance, and Management of Hospitals, Asylums, Charities and Eleemosynary Institutions in and for the Province, other than Marine Hospitals.”

The provision of so-called comprehensive Medicare began in a piecemeal fashion in the 1940s, but gained momentum in the 1960s, largely through the efforts of the then premier of Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas. A key step along the way was the passage in Saskatchewan in 1961 of the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act which basically guaranteed health coverage to all citizens. That included physician fees, and so Section 18 of the act includes the following:

“No physician or other person who provides an insured service to a beneficiary shall demand or accept payment for that service.”

Thus, direct physician billing to patients was essentially outlawed. Mr. Douglas turned his attention to the federal scene as he became leader of the New Democratic Party and his efforts were instrumental in the passage of the Medical Care Act of 1966, which obligated the federal government to provide half the provincial and territorial costs for medical services provided for a doctor outside hospitals. By 1972, all the provinces and territories had some form of plan to reimburse for physician services. The Canada Health Act of 1984 states in its preamble the primary objective:

to protect, promote and restore the physical and mental well-being of residents of Canada and to facilitate reasonable access to health services without financial or other barriers.”

Like British Columbia, the provinces have developed legislation designed to ensure universal and funded provision of care. In Ontario the Health Care Accessibility Act of 1986 essentially outlawed billing of patients outside the provincial insurance plan, and has been subsequently reinforced by versions of the Commitment to Future of Medicare Act.

And so, what are the considerations that are likely going through Justice Steeves mind as he ponders this momentous decision?It seems obvious that government-supported medicare has the considerable advantage of ensuring a standard level of care to all patients regardless of their economic means, and of ensuring physicians are compensated.

  • It seems obvious that government-supported medicare has considerable advantage of ensuring a standard level of care to all patients regardless of their economic means, and of ensuring physicians are compensated for their services.
  • There seems little doubt that a decision in favour of privately funded clinics will give rise to many similar operations throughout the country, particularly in large urban centres.
  • The risk of an exodus of talent from the public to private system seems real.
  • There are, indeed, many examples from other countries supporting the concept that the two systems can co-exist. However, it would seem that’s only true if there is some provision for mandatory participation of physicians in the public system.
  • It’s becoming apparent that the ability to fully fund “universal” care solely through the public coffer is not sustainable. We’re seeing examples of this almost daily. Hospitals, despite best efforts, are going beyond budgets to provide care, and there are clearly insufficient options for the care of needy outpatients.   Not only is the population getting larger and older, but highly effective (and very costly) therapies have emerged and are continuing to emerge for the treatment of conditions that previously had no options other than palliation. Wait times are certainly lengthening, and “hallway medicine” becoming the norm.
  • There’s no question that for many procedures with very long wait times, such as hip and knee surgeries, the critical bottleneck is not the availability of qualified physicians, but rather access to hospitals and operating rooms which could, theoretically, be at least partially addressed by providing privately funded facilities.
  • What effect a private system would have on public system wait times is, we must honestly admit, unknown and can’t be reliably projected. It will depend, to a large extent how many private facilities emerge, what services are provided, and what constraints are put on the providers.  

A critical and rather sobering consideration in all this is that the success or failure of any blended private/public model may hinge on the willingness of physicians to continue to provide care to patients regardless of ability to pay. It will test and expose their motivations and priorities. It will test their allegiance to the principles the profession has always espoused, expressed in the words of the World Health Association Oath, and taken in by most medical students, including those at Queen’s:

“I will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, gender, politics, socioeconomic standing, or sexual orientation to intervene between my duty and my patient”

Those who so vehemently oppose privately funded care apparently believe physicians will abandon these principles in favour of personal income. I believe, and hope, that they’re wrong. Whatever the outcome of this court case, I choose to believe that physicians will continue to use their training and skills as they were intended, for the benefit of all.   

The issue of whether well-resourced citizens have a charter-assured right to more expeditious health care, and whether that privilege impinges on the rights of the less-well-resourced, seems beyond objective analysis and, in my view, is best left in the hands of a fair- minded and impartial judiciary. In the end, our system for deciding such dilemmas has been well thought out, and is worthy of our trust.

Godspeed, Justice Steeves.

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Multiple avenues to service-learning for UG students

As part of its commitment to promote social responsibility and accountability as core values of its graduates, the Queen’s UGME program works to facilitate, encourage, support and acknowledge students’ service-learning.

While there are multiple definitions of service-learning, the UGME program has defined service learning as a learning experience that combines community service with preparation and reflection.

The UG Curriculum Committee first made this commitment formally in 2014 and continues to uphold it.

Service-learning is a unique type of volunteer service in its approach, specifically with the structured preparation and reflection requirements. Ideally, preparation involves consultations with community-member stakeholders. Additionally, the UG encourages students to focus on longer-term community engagement such as a term- or year-long commitment to build community relationships.

The UG, under the auspices of the Teaching, Learning, and Integration Committee (TLIC) has developed several avenues to service-learning: group service-learning projects, individual projects and individual activities.

Each SL endeavor must include preparation (including consultations with stakeholders where appropriate), service, and reflection on the service and learning that occurred. The TLIC assigned a minimum range of hours required for service (set at 15-20 hours). The hours threshold was established to ensure sufficiently meaningful engagement while recognizing students’ key responsibilities remain their academic studies.

Upon application and review, the TLIC designates student group activities as service-learning options. Sometimes these are activities designed specifically with recognized service-learning in mind. In other cases, existing student interest groups have designed service-learning options that participants can use to extend a volunteer activity into full service-learning. Some examples of our current approved group service learning projects are SWAM (which provides swimming lessons to children with disabilities), Jr. Medics (first aid workshops for elementary and middle-school students), and Altitude (mentoring for university students interested in a career in healthcare).

Students may also bring forward proposals for individual service-learning projects, typically in cooperation with a community-based agency. These are considered on a case-by-case basis applying the same criteria as for established group projects.

Individuals also have the option to pursue what the TLIC has designated as volunteer-based service learning. This option recognizes that not all community agencies’ needs fit our predominantly-project-based service-learning model.

Such organizations have a streamlined volunteer service system and any project that could be proposed by our medical students could be redundant to the agency’s mandate. The TLIC recognizes that medical students can meet the intended service and learning outcomes from working within these existing, established structures. For agencies that are pre-approved by the UGME, students may complete recognized service learning by following a non-project path.

For this non-project (activity) path, the TLIC has students complete different required preparation (typically research on the cooperating agency and/or the community need that is being met). Examples of approved settings for this type of SL include working at Martha’s Table and Pathways to Education’s tutoring programs. Students can bring forward suggested agency programs for approval for this path.

For any of these SL avenues, students are expected to initiate contact with the organizations themselves, although from time-to-time, the TLIC may work directly with an agency to set up pilot service-learning projects (such as the previous Loving Spoonful project). When these opportunities are available, students are informed through the AS and Class Presidents’ emails.

For more information on recognized service-learning options, feel free to email me at theresa.suart@queensu.ca

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