Canadian Medical Association

Dr. Vanessa Maclean

Dr. Maclean has always been committed to "paying forward" the mentorship and support she received in the early days of her career, encouraging young physicians — especially women — to take on leadership positions.

During her time as a zone medical director for Alberta Health Services (AHS), she worked on disaster preparedness initiatives, medical assistance in dying policies and physician wellness programs. She also always kept an eye out for promising young physicians with big ideas, making sure they had a chance to be heard and making herself available when they needed advice or support.

"I'm really proud of some of those bigger initiatives, but it's just as important to me to be there when someone knocks on my door and needs a minute," she says.

Uncovering roadblocks

Dr. Maclean's commitment to mentorship was strengthened when, in 2017, she was asked to conduct a review of the experience of female physician leaders in Alberta. What she found confirmed findings from similar studies around the world: that women are underrepresented in leadership positions in health care, and that they encounter a wide range of barriers to achieving those positions.

"I think I went into this review a little naively, because my own experience had been so positive," she recalls. "But I quickly realized that many women had experienced roadblocks in their way throughout their careers. The findings made me even more passionate about reaching out and supporting women in, or aspiring to, leadership roles."

Dr. Maclean's report, Female Physician Leaders in Alberta Health Services, included several recommendations for addressing the barriers women physician leaders face, such as developing a sponsorship strategy and a health and wellness strategy. She has been gratified to see AHS implement many of them.

Helping physicians see their own leadership potential

Today, though Dr. Maclean's work focuses primarily on the establishment of Connect Care — a single, province-wide electronic medical record system that will streamline and improve patient care — she's still actively mentoring women and other emerging leaders.

Dr. Maclean believes leadership provides an opportunity to make things better and that physicians are natural leaders. She is always on the lookout for opportunities to invite young doctors to join committees where they can start to develop leadership skills.

"So often, one of the biggest parts of mentoring is just helping people realize they're already leaders," she says. "They're spearheading new initiatives, revising protocols, reorganizing teams. I'm just holding up a mirror so they can see in themselves what I already see."

Dr. Vanessa Maclean is receiving the May Cohen Award for Women Mentors in recognition of her outstanding mentoring and contributions to the development of women's mentorship advocacy.

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