After helping establish the physician wellness programs at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine’s Faculty Wellness Program, Dr. Caroline Gérin-Lajoie says joining the CMA as the vice-president of physician health and wellness is bringing her full circle.
Mid-way through her career as a clinical psychiatrist, Dr. Gérin-Lajoie took part in a CMA pilot project, a two-day physician wellness retreat. At the time, her psychiatry work revolved around cancer patients and helping establish the psychosocial oncology program at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Program, as its first medical lead. But what she heard at that wellness retreat intrigued her. And she wanted to learn more.
Shortly after, Dr. Gérin-Lajoie approached senior executives at The Ottawa Hospital about doing more work on physician wellness. That planted the seed, and within a few years, The Ottawa Hospital tapped her to start a physician wellness committee, and later, to become its first medical director of physician health and wellness.
Dr. Gérin-Lajoie says it’s a field that’s changed a lot, even since she started in 2013.
“Physician wellness is now an issue that’s being talked about, and as a result, I think there’s more interest in resiliency, and learning resiliency skills,” said Dr. Gérin-Lajoie. It is also an area of increasing research, with evidence that physician wellness can have an impact on patient outcomes.
“I think the challenge now is to actually make changes in our working environments, including at the system level. The other challenge is to change our culture.”
Medical culture is something that runs deep for Dr. Gérin-Lajoie. Her mother and grandmother were both nurses, and her father and grandfather were physicians. As a six-year-old, she walked the rounds with her father at the hospital, a memory she says sparked her interest in medicine.
“It was probably my first glimpse into what medicine could be,” she explained.
Today, Dr. Gérin-Lajoie’s work on physician health has made her keenly aware how much has changed since her father practiced medicine.
“Our health care environments today are some of the most complex environments that exist; they don’t change in linear or predictable ways, they are impacted by politics, economics, social values,” she explained.
“I think physicians are very aware on a day-to-day basis that our health care environment is highly stressful. There are budget cuts and higher volumes of patients and higher complexity of care. Technology is a big piece as well, because it’s changing the nature of the work we do. Physicians have always experienced stress, but these changes have brought us to a point where we need to address wellness and burnout much more directly.”
While leading the physician wellness initiatives at The Ottawa Hospital, Dr. Gérin-Lajoie worked closely with Dr. Kerri Ritchie, a clinical and health psychologist, to develop resiliency materials, receiving a grant from the Mach-Gaensslen Foundation to pilot a resiliency course for physicians, residents and fellows. She says it was through this work she learned there is no “cookie-cutter recipe for success” when it comes to tackling physician wellness; this is the philosophy she plans to bring to her new role at the CMA.
“I don’t think any one person knows the answers, and that’s why we need to engage all the members to join the conversation and start finding solutions to these issues.”
Dr. Caroline Gérin-Lajoie joined the CMA in January 2019 as the new Vice-president of Physician Health and Wellness.