Canadian Medical Association

Dr. Melissa Lem on environmental advocacy and the power of debate

January 27, 2022

In this series, some of Canada’s most active physician advocates explain why they feel their voices are essential to a better health future and what motivates them to step into public conversations on health and health-related issues.

Dr. Melissa Lem – a BC-based family doctor and environmental advocate – talks about why she’s become active on Twitter and in traditional media to help highlight the connection between the environment and public health outcomes. She’s president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and director and founder of Park Prescriptions for the BC Parks Foundation.

On her path into medicine

“I grew up in an East Asian family where pursuing higher education, specifically becoming a doctor, was really important. I had a lot of different interests when I was younger; for instance, I was really interested in becoming an environmental biologist. But my parents nudged me — pushed me really — into medicine. Looking back, I have no regrets. It’s opened so many doors.”

On becoming a media expert

“I’ve had an interest in writing and journalism from a young age, and started working in the media about 10 years ago. I became the resident medical expert on CBC’s Steven and Chris show, and eventually started writing for them as well. Now, I’d say a lot of the work I do is media-related and I find I have the background and authority to speak to a variety of issues in and outside medicine.”

On the importance of speaking out

“Nurses and doctors are consistently rated as one of the top five trusted professions in Canada and around the world. I think it’s so important to use our trusted voice to take the angles that media don’t always want to take or that aren’t getting attention in other ways.”

On broadening the definition of health care

“I think physicians and other health professionals often think of health as only what we do within the health care system. But if we want to truly advocate for patients, we can’t just stay inside our little box. We have to look outside to the broader societal impacts on health, including the effect of the environment.”

On learning how to balance it all

“I work three days in clinic per week and the other two days, evenings and weekends I devote to my media and advocacy work, which I view as just as important. I realize I’m very lucky to be doing this, but it’s also a struggle at times. Even though I talk a lot about getting outside — which I make sure I do every day — it’s hard to balance family and work life. It all feels so urgent and important, but I’m realizing more and more that I do have to take time for myself because no one can work at a fast pace forever.”

On the reach of social media

“Social media can kind of give you tunnel vision — the algorithms are designed to push you content you will want to read. This can work to your advantage when news media are following what’s happening with other outlets and discover an op-ed or even a random, candid tweet you wrote, which can lead to further media opportunities and the chance to spread your message to a wider audience.”

On the power of debate

“I can think of a few examples when media outlets or shows didn’t necessarily agree with my point of view and invited me to come on to essentially spar with the host. The audience might not have otherwise got to hear my side of the issue so I view these opportunities as all part of getting my message out there. I’ve definitely had people trolling me or saying nasty things in response to my speaking out, but I’d say the overall positive feedback outweighs the negative.”

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