The Crisis is the Curriculum. Education in the Midst of COVID-19

When I was a young father fretting about whether I was doing all I could to advise and guide my children, a very wise man provided some sage advice. “If there’s one thing I know about young kids, it’s that they don’t listen to much of what you say, but they watch everything you do.” His point was that we teach through example. Our behaviour, the decisions we make and the principles that we rely upon to guide those decisions are what really matter. They are what impress and persist in the memory of learners.  

That advice has withstood the test of time and, I’ve found, extended beyond parenthood to influence my perspectives on medical education. As factual information becomes more widely and easily accessible, medical students have less and less need for didactic teaching, but more and more need to understand how to manage that information and, importantly, how to “live the life” of a practicing physician. How decisions are made. How uncertainty is engaged. How stress and fatigue are managed. They’re watching, and they’re very astute observers.

All this has never been truer than during the current COVID-19 crisis.

The roles and routines of our students have been altered dramatically. In a short period of time, the first and second years have shifted from a curriculum featuring predominantly whole-class presentations, small group learning and regular clinical skills sessions with standardized and volunteer patients, to a remotely delivered curriculum that they’re accessing individually from their homes scattered across the country. Clinical Skills is being “parked”, to be made up when circumstances allow, in a manner not yet determined.

Our final year students have, fortunately, completed their clinical rotations and are also utilizing remote access to complete their curricular requirements. They are on schedule to graduate and enter their residencies July 1, but are facing adjustment and disappointment, with the cancellation of Convocation ceremonies, delay of the MCC Part 1 examination to some future date, no doubt after they start residency, and the uncertainty of what sort of hospital environment they will be engaging.

Perhaps the greatest impact has been on our third year class. About three weeks ago, we had to make the very difficult decision to suspend their clinical placements. This was not because of a lack of perceived value, but because the simple logistics of maintaining safe and educationally viable experiences in the face of the stresses currently being faced by our hospitals and faculty became insurmountable. For them, we are developing a completely original on-line, remotely delivered curriculum intended to provide learning that would normally have been undertaken in conjunction with their clinical placements. By doing so, we hope to be in a better position to complete their training within whatever time remains when clinical placements are eventually resumed.

How has all this been possible? Two simple answers: people and technology.

Our curricular leadership has taken on this unprecedented challenge with great creativity and tenacious dedication. Our newly appointed Assistant Dean Curriculum, Dr. Michelle Gibson, as well as Year Directors Drs. Lindsey Patterson, Andrea Guerin, Heather Murray, Susan Moffatt and Andrea Winthrop have all stepped up despite their own individual obligations at this time to develop and manage this transformation. Assistant Deans Hugh MacDonald (Admissions), Renee Fitzpatrick (Student Affairs) and Cherie Jones (Academic Affairs and Accreditation) have all overseen adjustments in their respective portfolios.

Our administrative staff has managed all this with dedication, a cooperative spirit and good humour. Although working remotely in compliance with university directives, they have managed to maintain excellent working relationships and communication.

All this has largely been made possible through technologic advancements that have been under steady development for the past few years. Zoom technology, in particular, is what makes remote educational delivery possible. Our faculty has engaged this with remarkable alacrity, even the technology-challenged (myself, for example). This past week, I was able to hold a virtual Town Hall with 76 members of the fourth year class, in which I was able to both update them about key issues and hear from them on a variety of topics.

It also makes it possible for our administrative staff to “get together” for daily meetings to ensure the curriculum is being delivered effectively, and all administrative aspects of the program are attended to.

Curricular Coordinators Tara Hartman, Tara Callaghan, Jane Gordon, Vanessa Thomas, Assessment Coordinator Amanda Consack, Educational Developers Theresa Suart, Eleni Katsoulas, Student Affairs Coordinator Erin Meyer, Standardized Patient Manager Eveline Semeniuk, Admissions Team Rachel Bauder and Kristin Baker, Facility Manager Jennifer Saunders, Student Support Assistants Dana Halliday and Jessica Griscti and UG Program Manager Jacqueline Findlay are all managing their areas of responsibility with great skill at this most difficult time. 

What makes the technology possible is the remarkable skill and dedication of our IT support staff, headed by Peter MacNeil.

All this is certainly impressive and worthy of recognition but, it must be recognized, it is far too early to celebrate or claim any victory. This crisis is far from over. In the weeks and months ahead, there will no doubt be new, vexing challenges that come our way. It is nonetheless appropriate to pause and recognize the efforts being made by so many, and to take comfort in the knowledge that we have the capacity and dedication to engage change.  

It’s also appropriate to consider some early lessons that are emerging.

Education continues. Even if there were no formal structures or sessions in place, our students are witnessing a unique event. Their training to date allows them insights they otherwise wouldn’t have. In essence, the crisis itself is the curriculum. They are observing and learning. Much of that learning will relate to how the medical community is engaging the crisis, both collectively and individually. As I was told so many years ago, it’s not what we say but what we do that will persist.

We’re adaptable. Problems that seemed insolvable a short time ago are being solved. Impenetrable barriers are being easily breached. We’re learning to do things we didn’t have either the motivation or inclination to learn previously. And it’s working.

Communication is critical. The need to communicate efficiently and clearly has never been more apparent, or critical. Technology has allowed this to happen and, thankfully, was available when needed.

Opportunities are emerging. Circumstances are causing us to engage issues that have previously been ignored because the solutions seemed too disruptive and risky. We’re now forced to take on those issues by necessity and are beginning, in some cases, to find that those misgivings were preventing us from engaging valuable alternatives. Case in point, the role and electives in medical education will require a re-thinking and re-imagining that’s been long overdue.

And, most importantly…

Medical Students belong in the clinical workplace. All the efforts to maintain formal education remotely are certainly of great value and allow us to ensure our students are progressing in their basic learning, but it does not substitute for active engagement in the workplace. Students themselves, all across the country are coming forward to provide what service they can. They are providing home support for busy clinicians. They are manning phone lines for Public Health. They are collecting valuable equipment for use in hospitals. They’re donating blood to address current shortages. Over and above all this altruistic volunteerism, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are many very useful roles they can play within the clinical workplace. Every medical school in the country is working tirelessly to determine when they can re-enter safely and in a supportive learning environment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem imminent at the time of this writing.

Finally, it must be recognized that the students of today will be the leaders and front-line providers of whatever health care crises face our society in the future. We must not deny them the learning that this crisis provides. By “watching everything we do” and through active involvement, they will emerge better prepared to engage the challenges the future.

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“If I can help somebody”. Two voices challenging our concept of diversity.

You can’t be in a hurry listening to a Mahalia Jackson song. Her voice captures your attention like a moth to a flame. She extends each lyric and note, drawing you irresistibly into the heart of the song. You have to wait for her. You want to wait. You can’t not wait.

Her voice is like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. A refuge from the busy and hectic world, a place where haste is no longer a virtue and we’re reminded of the value of slow, deliberate contemplation and search for deeper meaning in what’s transpiring around us.

One of her songs, in particular, came to mind as I recently read an article about a young man named Logan Boulet. Logan was born in Lethbridge Alberta in 1997, the second child of two teachers who decided to name him for the highest mountain in Canada. He was an active child with many, constantly evolving interests. He loved hockey and more than made up for average size and natural talent with dedication, intensity and commitment to his team. His work ethic bordered on the obsessive. He eventually came to play for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Logan was one of 16 people killed April 6, 2018 when their team bus was struck by a loaded tractor trailer that failed to stop at a highway intersection near Armley, Saskatchewan. His father, who was driving 15 minutes behind the bus, was one of the first on the scene.

Four weeks earlier, Logan had signed his organ donor card. He did so in honour of a former trainer who had died at 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage and been an organ donor. Logan’s heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas and corneas have all been successfully transplanted.

When asked a few weeks before by his father why he decided to sign the card, Logan replied:

“If I can help save six people, I’m gonna to do it”

When I read the article, his words stuck with me. In fact, I couldn’t shake it. I’d heard those words before. Turned out it was a Mahalia Jackson song entitled “If I can Help Somebody”.

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Hard to imagine any two human beings whose life experiences were more different. Mahalia Jackson, two generations removed from former slaves, was born in New Orleans in 1911 and lived her childhood in a three room dwelling with 12 other people, including her mother, aunts, siblings and cousins, and the family dog. She was afflicted with congenital genu varum (bowed legs) which would have caused pain and physical limitations but didn’t stop her from dancing for the white ladies for whom her mother and aunt cleaned house. Her childhood was difficult, particularly after her mother died when she was five.  There was no schooling, but there was church and, with it, singing. And how she loved to sing. She was courted by choirs and choirmasters particularly after she moved to Chicago at age 20. She went on to become one of the most celebrated gospel singers of all time, the first to sing at Carnegie Hall and at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. In 1963,  she sang before 250,000 people assembled to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Five  years later, she would sing at his funeral. She was  an important force in the civil rights movement, but also the subject of racial prejudice and herself the target of assassination attempts. Despite all this, she remained hopeful and never embittered. When asked about her choice of gospel music over more popular forms, she said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope”.  She is also quoted as saying that she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”.

The particular song that came to mind when I read about Logan goes as follows:    

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he’s travelling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Two very different people. Different races, genders, generations, talents, interests, culture, environment. Poster children for our concept of “diversity”. It’s hard to imagine they would ever have had occasion to encounter  each other, even if they weren’t so separated by space and time. And yet, they were linked by a common value and simple, human interest in doing what they could to help people around them. Linked in their values. Linked in their humanity. And so, perhaps not so diverse after all.

Here’s a link to that song. Give it a listen, but don’t be in a hurry.

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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’

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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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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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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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Our Aesculapian Society – Contributing to a Long Tradition of Collaboration and Service

The medical student society at Queen’s dates back to 1872 and is named in honor of Aesculepius, the mythological Greek figure considered the god of medicine. In fact, Aesculepius had five daughters each of whom represented some aspect of medicine considered essential to health. Hygieia was the goddess of cleanliness, Iaso the goddess of recuperation from illness, Aceso the goddess of the healing process, Aegle the goddess of good health and Panacea the goddess of remedies. The Greeks, it seems, knew something about social determinants of health and the value of personal wellness.

I’m very pleased to see that our current students are keeping the long tradition alive and contributing to the health of their fellow students and the learning community. The article that follows from our current and immediate past Aesculapian Society presidents (Danny Jomaa and Rae Woodhouse) describes their recent successful efforts to establish a fitness facility within the hospital. In doing do, they got great support from Mr. Chris Gillies and Mr. Adam Bondy of KGH.

Congratulations to Danny, Rae and all their AS colleagues. Aesculepius would be proud. I know we are.

Anthony Sanfilippo

Associate Dean

Undergraduate Medical Education

The Aesculapian Society is thrilled to announce the opening of a dedicated gym for medical students and residents in Kingston General Hospital (KGH). This project has been a year in the making and has been a collaborative effort between the Aesculapian Society, the Professional Association of Residents of Ontario (PARO), and the KGH administration. In early 2018, the Aesculapian Society set out to utilize a pool of funding to benefit current and future medical students. From student consultation, two projects were selected to be pursued further. The first was a revitalization of the kitchenette in the School of Medicine Building and the second was the creation of a gym in KGH. The latter was selected due to its focus on student wellbeing – a widely recognized priority at the School of Medicine. This idea stemmed from an Aesculapian Society Initiatives Grant proposal that was originally submitted in 2017 by Dr. Matthew McIntosh (MEDS 2018). The first step was finding a suitable space for the creation of this gym. In collaboration with Chris Gilles (KGH Director of Medical Affairs) and the Queen’s PARO Executive team, an under-utilized lounge in KGH was selected to be the new space for the medical student and resident gym. The timing could not be more serendipitous; the hospital’s insurance policy had recently approved the creation of a gym, which had been a long-time priority for physicians and residents alike. The newly completed gym, located on Connell 6, includes a range of cardio equipment, strength equipment, and fitness accessories.

The success of this project was possible because of the many individuals that contributed to each step of the gym’s creation. We would like to especially thank Chris Gillies and Adam Bondy (Project Coordinator) from KGH for championing the implementation and set-up of this project. We would also like to thank PARO for their generous provision of space and collaboration. Finally, this project would not have been realized without the dedication and enthusiasm of the Aesculapian Society Councils of 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. We would like to extend our gratitude to the students that supported this initiative by providing their input, ideas, and encouragement.

The Aesculapian Society recognizes that students have a variety of wellness needs and this gym primarily supports students’ physical wellness. We look forward to collaborating with student body and the UGME to expand upon, and create initiatives that support other aspects of student wellbeing. We look forward to seeing the lasting impact that this project will have on Queen’s medical students and residents for years to come. The Aesculapian Society encourages students and residents to provide feedback on how the gym can be improved to better serve our community’s needs.

Danny Jomaa, President

Rae Woodhouse, Past-President

Aesculapian Society 2019-2020

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An election no one won. Is it finally time for electoral reform?

We’ve recently come through a federal election where there appear to have been very few winners.

Certainly not the Liberal party, who saw their seats in the House reduced and must now attempt to govern with no majority and little support from the three prairie provinces.

Certainly not the Conservatives who failed to capitalize on what many saw as a golden opportunity to unseat the incumbent government.

Certainly not the NDP who saw their number of seats reduced drastically despite having a charismatic and articulate leader.

Certainly not the fledgling People’s Party of Canada, who won no seats, not even the one contested by their leader.

Probably not the Green party, although they did gain a seat outside British Columbia.

In fact, the only party that could be assessed as having emerged with a positive result is the Bloc Quebecois, whose main goal is to protect the interests of a single cultural group within a single province, even if it means breaking up the country.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this election is the voter turnout or, perhaps more accurately stated, non-turnout. Fully 34% (that’s one in three!) of eligible Canadian voters decided to take a pass on this election. This is not exactly new. Voter turnout in the 43 Canadian federal elections that have been held since confederation has averaged 70.3%, ranging from highs of 79% in the early 1960s to a low of 58.8% in 2008. In that light, our current results might not seem too disappointing, if not that they appear to be part of a concerning downward trend which seemed to begin in the late 1980s.

And so, we must ask, what is it that keeps folks from exercising their right to influence our country’s government in the only way that will be available to most of them? It’s certainly not any lack of significant contemporary issues or a sense of satisfaction with the conduct of our current government. It’s certainly not that voting isn’t as easy as possible, including widespread availability of advanced polls. So what is it?

That very question was the subject of a 1989 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform. The authors identified a number of factors that prevent people from voting. Many are very practical, logistic issues such as illness, being away from home at the time, or just being too busy. However, a leading cause that emerged was simply labeled simply as “wasn’t interested”.  A leading author of the document, Jon H. Pammett, described what he termed “administrative disenfranchisement”, meaning that the procedures involved in the voting process inhibit participation.

The results of the recent election highlight another cause of voter discontent that has been the focus of increasing attention and political lobbying over the past few years. Our parliamentary, party-based system combined with the marked variations in population density that exist in our country gives rise to a disturbing disconnect between the popular vote and final outcome.

For example, the Liberal party’s 33.1% of the popular vote translated into 46.4% (157) of the seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative party, which actually received a higher percentage of the popular vote (34.4%), won 26 fewer seats (121 or 35.8% of the available seats). The NDP’s 15.9% of the vote, in a proportional sense, should have earned them 54 seats, but they’ll go into the next parliament with only 24 seats, whereas the Bloc Quebecois’ 7.7% of the vote yielded 32 seats in voter rich Quebec. Perhaps the most egregious injustice relates to the Green Party. In an evenly distributed system their 6.5% share would translate into 22 seats, rather than the 3 seats they won. Even the fledgling People’s Party, which won no seats at all, can cry foul given that their 1.6% of the voting share would proportionately correspond to 5 seats.

Regardless of your political affiliation or preferences, it’s easy to understand why so many people are finding this disturbing, and why voters, particularly those is less populated parts of the country, are left feeling frustrated, discouraged and the sense that their individual votes are devalued or even meaningless. Adding to all this electoral confusion is the persisting problem that, in a parliamentary system, the voters don’t directly elect the highest political office in the country. This brings, with every election, the perennial and vexing conundrum of whether to vote for the local candidate on the basis of their personal capabilities, or the party they represent. In a democratic society, should voters be forced to make that choice? Might that be contributing to their frustration and apathy?

Changing such a deeply established process will, of course, not be easy. It would require determined action from the very politicians who have benefited from the status quo. Nonetheless, it seems that the time has come for at least an open debate on the issue. Those with the courage to take this on might be worth voting for!

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