Niharika Shahi first learned about social determinants of health and their impact on health outcomes as a summer student working at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute.
"I realized there are so many factors that affect population health," she says. "And that Northern communities face different factors than other communities do. It inspired me to go into medicine — with a focus on targeting those determinants to improve health in the North."
Improving care by expanding training
Shahi joined Compass North Student-Led Health Outreach in her first year at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM). Compass North provides key services to underserved populations in Thunder Bay, including vaccination clinics and health promotion workshops.
While pursuing her interest in addressing the opioid crisis in Northern Ontario, Shahi noticed the NOSM curriculum didn't include enough training in handling opioid overdoses. She arranged for Compass North to collaborate with a local needle exchange program to provide workshops on how to administer naloxone. Originally intended for NOSM students, the workshops are now offered to the public.
Shahi partnered with the Lakehead Public School Board and local psychiatrists to develop workshops for staff working with Indigenous youth facing mental health challenges. She has also spearheaded efforts to educate local health care professionals about how to recognize potential victims of human trafficking.
"I grew up in this community, and it's important for me to do everything I can to ensure people have access to the health care they need," she says. "That includes making sure physician training covers all the key issues."
Equity for Northern and rural students
Shahi's advocacy also extends to her fellow medical students in the North.
"There are lots of important initiatives and conferences, but they almost all happen in Southern Ontario," she says. "Attending these events means Northern students have to take time off school and work, lose some of our clinical hours, and spend significant time and money on travel."
As chair of northern and rural medical student engagement for the Ontario Medical Students Association, Shahi advocated for better access to distant events and participated in writing a position paper that was submitted to the Canadian Federation of Medical Students. As a result, most big conferences and important talks are now live-streamed.
Shahi plans to complete a Radiology residency in Hamilton and then return to serve her community. In the meantime, she plans to keep advocating for Northern interests.
"I'm going to keep working with the school and community members to make sure Northern medical students get the training they need."
Niharika Shahi is receiving the CMA Award for Young Leaders (Student) in recognition of her exemplary creativity, initiative and commitment to making a difference at the local, provincial/territorial or national level.