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Using our 'power and privilege' to help others: My experience as a CMA Ambassador

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"Because you're a doctor, society has granted you power and privilege, respect and responsibility," Dr. Jane Philpott, the former federal health minister, told a packed audience at the Canadian Medical Association's (CMA's) annual meeting in August.

"There's no better use of that power than to advocate on behalf of those who do not have the same opportunities," she went on to say.

This being my first CMA meeting, I had no idea what to expect. As a relatively new-into-practice internist, I would not have attended the conference if it wasn't for the CMA Ambassador Program. This program not only encourages, but funds students, residents and new-in-practice physicians to participate in the annual meeting.

I felt privileged to attend the minister's address at the beginning of the conference, and was moved by her passionate call to action – for Canadian physicians to do more for our country's vulnerable populations, specifically Indigenous people, those with addictions, and youth with mental health issues. 

Dr. Philpott encouraged us to focus on what we can do both individually and as a group to improve the lives of those who are suffering or at risk. When speaking specifically about the opioid crisis in Canada, she stressed the importance of promoting awareness that social inequity and unresolved trauma is often at the root of high-risk drug use.

"Addiction is not a crime. It is not a moral failure. It is a health issue…. People who use drugs are...people," she said.

The equality and social justice themes outlined in Philpott's address set an inspirational tone for the rest of the conference.

I haven't been involved in advocacy work or politics since medical school. After the grind of residency and the push to find a job, any interest I had in becoming active in medical leadership organizations fell by the wayside. I felt too unconnected to attend a large conference like the CMA annual meeting and I suspect many of my new practice colleagues may feel the same way.

The CMA Ambassador Program went above and beyond to make sure novice attendees, like myself, mingled with other delegates and felt welcome to participate in lectures, panels and sessions over the four-day conference. There was even a small group session with just Ambassadors and Dr. Philpott following her address to the larger group – she openly and honestly took on questions relevant to young and in-training MDs, ranging from lack of jobs for new grads to shrinking numbers of residency positions to inter-professional bullying.

At this point in the Ambassador experience, it was hard not to feel both included and inspired.

The following day during a panel discussion on opioids, Dr. Christy Sutherland received a standing ovation as she talked about her work in harm reduction in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Sutherland is a shining example of a physician using her 'power and privilege' to help some of Canada's most vulnerable people – one of those pioneers Dr. Philpott alluded to in her opening address.

Dr. Sutherland's take home point? It's our job as doctors to keep people safe. 

"There are a lot of common myths about harm reduction," she said. "That it enables drug use …this isn't true. Having the option of safety does not encourage drug use."

She urged us to put ourselves in the shoes of her addicted patients. They don't seek to overdose or die – they live in fear of dying. Their addiction puts them at risk of dying each time they use because of contaminated supplies of street drugs. Imagine what that must feel like.

"We have to create safety," she said, "people die less when you bring them inside and when you attach them to medical care. …That's the outcome that we should be concerned about as physicians."

If Dr. Philpott's address was inspirational, Dr. Sutherland's was nothing short of empowering. Here was one physician making a difference in the seemingly insurmountable opioid crisis.

The CMA also included talks from non-doctors. On the conference's final day, Quebec-born journalist Liz Plank spoke of gender inequality and health. Jacques Poulin-Denis, an amputee and dancer, put on an incredible live performance about resiliency after tragedy. And there were breakout sessions discussing important topics like national pharmacare, physician health and medical assistance in dying.

The further you get into medical training, the smaller your medical world can become. You might specialize or sub-specialize, get entrenched in research or become deeply committed to a community or population of people. An unintended byproduct of my training was the loss of my once broad perspective. Attending the annual meeting exposed me to a wide range of people I would have otherwise not crossed paths with. It also exposed me to new ideas and perspectives on very relevant Canadian health issues.  

Ambassador or not, I would encourage all my fellow physician colleagues to attend the CMA annual meeting at least once.

- Dr. Seema Marwaha 

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