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​“We’re not alone in our struggles”: CMA brings together 25 medical students to discuss wellness at the International Conference on Physician Health

“There’s a lot of pressure to get the grades, do the research, have a social life, maintain your relationships and on top of that, be well and eat healthy.”

As a second-year medical student at the University of Alberta (U of A), Gurleen Brar is already feeling the pressure to be perfect. And she says she isn’t alone. Many of the 160 students in her graduating year face similar pressures. As their health and wellness representative, Brar wants to create ways to help aspiring physicians cope with stress. But she’s not always sure where to start.

“I’ve been facing some challenges at U of A with how to improve wellness for my classmates,” she says. “I thought this conference would help me gain new ideas and resources to make some changes happen.”

Brar is part of the CMA’s new Wellness Ambassador initiative, which brought 25 medical students to the International Conference on Physician Health (ICPH) in Toronto this October. The CMA Foundation − in partnership with the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada − helped make it happen by providing grants for the students to attend. The Canadian Federation of Medical Students, Fédération Médicale Étudiante du Québec, and Resident Doctors of Canada also partnered on the program.

Participants were chosen from an overwhelming number of applicants, based on their interest in advancing student health and wellness. Building on the CMA Ambassador Program, this new initiative aims to build a community of emerging wellness leaders to help advocate for a healthy, vibrant and supportive profession.

Easily identified by their orange-coloured lanyards, the Wellness Ambassadors took part in their own facilitated pre-conference workshop with CMA staff and physician health leaders, considering: What should a supportive medical training environment look like? What kinds of challenges are standing in the way? What resources are available to improve student health and wellness?

Together, the Wellness Ambassadors outlined personal pressures affecting their health, for example, lack of time, perfectionism and finances.

They also examined system pressures they’re facing, including resistance to change, conflicting demands, CaRMS and accreditation.

“It’s helpful to meet students from across Canada going through the same struggles, and see what works and doesn’t work for them,” says Ryan Densmore, the sports and wellness representative on the Dalhousie Medical Students’ Society. A second-year med student, Densmore has experienced his own burnout in the past. He says it’s important to teach students coping mechanisms early on in medical school.

“It’s better in first and second year to be able to manage your time and learn how to incorporate exercise and nutrition and mindfulness into your day-to-day activities because once you get into third and fourth year and residency and practice, that’s not when you want to be struggling.”

At Dalhousie, Densmore has organized a gym crawl, a financial wellness seminar and a presentation on healthy eating. The challenge is often getting students to come.

At the U of A, Gurleen Brar hosts a “cake and complaints” event, where, you guessed it, students eat cake and vent.

“Not productive complaining, but cathartic complaining. It’s great for wellness and it’s great for morale,” she says.

After taking part in the CMA Wellness Ambassador initiative, and attending ICPH, Brar says she’s taking home some new ideas to help her peers. They include giving students a Friday off to go home for the weekend, designing a campaign to match students with family doctors, and extending the hours of the student affairs office.

During the pre-conference workshop, the Wellness Ambassadors also received advocacy training and gained practical skills to implement change at their own institutions. CMA staff worked with each group to develop an advocacy plan addressing a specific issue and prepared a mock “pitch” to the dean of their university for implementing a health and wellness initiative.

Brar says the training gave her the confidence to better navigate the administrative system at U of A, influence decision-makers and implement the changes she wants to see.

“I want to introduce a new culture that says, ‘Your wellness matters, you can take time for yourself and it’s not selfish and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it,’” says Brar.

Densmore agrees, seeing parallels with his own efforts at Dalhousie.

“If I can help one person change their trajectory to burnout or exhaustion, with simple tools to steer them in a better direction, that would make it all worth it.”

Forward any comments about this article to: cmanews@cma.ca.