Med school needs more students, dean tells Sudbury chamber

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TheSudburyStar.com – News/Local
October 23, 2019.    Jim Moodie

Cap ‘makes me crazy,’ Dr. Sarita Verma says

It’s been 15 years since the Northern Ontario School of Medicine came into being, and a decade since its first class of physicians graduated.

While its mission remains essentially the same — to produce high-quality doctors, many of whom will hopefully choose to remain in the North — there is now an opportunity to take the organization to another level, according to the organization’s new dean.

“We’re trying to rekindle excitement around NOSM and bring us back to those heady days where everybody thought it was a great idea,” said Dr. Sarita Verma, at a luncheon address hosted by the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. “Well, it’s still a great idea, but what do the next 10 to 15 years look like?”

The school is embarking on a strategic plan, she said, that will take into account new technologies, incorporate innovations in teaching, and better address the socio-economic needs of Northern communities.

“I’m optimistic about the future,” said Verma. “This is not going to be my strategic plan. But in the next five years, with the crackerjack team that exists at NOSM and the legacy that’s been left by (former dean) Roger Strasser, I’m very hopeful that we can move forward and make progress.”

Verma, who took over as dean and CEO at the med school four months ago, brings a wealth of experience to the role. She was formerly the vice-president of education at the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada and a professor emerita in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.

The 61-year-old dean originally trained as a lawyer before becoming a family physician and has served as a diplomat in Canada’s Foreign Service, as well as worked with the U.N. refugee agency in Africa.

“This is not my first rodeo,” she said. “But NOSM is a very unique and interesting environment, where social accountability means something quite different — because of the geography and because we are the only one of six (medical) schools (in Canada) that has a specific mandate.”

The Northern med school is different, too, in that it has a “tremendous partnership with two universities, Laurentian and Lakehead (in Thunder Bay),” she noted. “We belong to two worlds — the northwest and the northeast — but we also belong to francophone, Indigenous, rural and remote, and large urban communities. So you’ve got a medical school that has to meet a great number of disparate needs and it needs to be socially accountable.”

On a personal note, Verma said she has had “only pleasant surprises” since relocating to the North.

“It’s been a very hospitable, warm welcome to Sudbury,” she said. “This is one heck of a town. It’s beautiful; I love it. There’s a lot of activity here, and I guess you are a well-hidden secret.”

She has also travelled the region, where she has encountered many great people, but also great challenges for those people to access doctors and specialists.

“Health care in Northern Ontario is in greater turmoil than it is in any other part of the province,” she said. “In some places, we’re one doctor away from a crisis. We’re one sub-specialist away from a crisis.”

Verma said she had an opportunity this week to meet with Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, and was able to communicate many concerns about the local school of medicine, as well as health care in general in the region.

One of her concerns is the cap on the number of students at NOSM. “Is it enough to have 64 physicians in a part of the province where the need is greater?” she asked. “It makes me crazy. We need to expand this medical school.”

The school must also adapt quickly as “medicine is changing right in front of our eyes,” she said.

Only a small team is now required in surgery, as a machine called DaVinci “does the rest,” she noted. Meanwhile, Apple watches and iPhones can perform electrocardiogram monitoring and “read a rash and send it the dermatologist,” Verma added.

“Unless we change our ways, we will be very quickly mediocre, and very quickly redundant,” said the dean. “Technology is revolutionizing health care and in the 10 to 15 years it takes to get through undergrad, medical school, residency and enter practice, the world will be completely different.”

Northern Ontario has high rates of suicide, substance abuse and various diseases, including diabetes, and it’s important to address the root causes of these unfortunate trends, said Verma.

“If there was one reason why I came to Northern Ontario, and to live and work here, in Sudbury and Thunder Bay, is the opportunity to have an impact on the determinants of health,” she said. “The disease burden is greater here than anywhere else in the province. If you want to make any difference, this is where you can make a difference, because this is what health care is all about.”

Med school needs more students, dean tells Sudbury chamber

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