When Dr. Gigi Osler stood up to give her inaugural address to the Canadian Medical Association, it was clear Canada’s medical community had entered a new era.
Osler [BScMed/92, MD/92], two years ago, became the first female surgeon and the first woman of colour to become CMA president—her father was a doctor from India and her mother, a nurse from the Philippines. She was also the first female doctor from Manitoba to hold the office.
Osler’s inaugural speech, which shone a light on the importance of mental health in the profession, was also a first—and not an entirely welcome first—for her community of professionals, she says.
“I spoke of the time when I had just lost my dad and was busy at work. I was overwhelmed by personal grief and feeling totally burnt out,” Osler says. “And you’re not supposed to talk about that, especially in an inaugural address. It’s a solemn occasion and not a typical time to show vulnerability.”
But Osler puts a high value on authenticity and says being open about mental health—her own and others’ in her demanding field—has a payoff for both doctors, medicine students and patients. During her term as president, the CMA created a physician wellness portfolio which led to the association’s first appointment of a vice-president of physician health and wellness.
She describes doctor burnout as a deep feeling of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional exhaustion that also has physicians detaching from their work and life. The weight of the COVID-19 pandemic across Canada only adds to the pressure load.
“What can we do to make our training culture and workplace culture more inclusive, more supportive, and healthier for physicians?” says Osler.
“And this is something that we can control: how we interact with each other, how we treat each other. How do we support women in medicine? How do we support Indigenous physicians? How do we support Black physicians? How do we support physicians of colour? Because by creating a healthier and more inclusive culture, both physicians and, ultimately, patients will benefit.”
She’s an outspoken advocate for groups who’ve been traditionally underrepresented in medicine, including female surgeons, and inspired the Association’s first policy on equity and diversity in medicine. Osler was named CMA Trailblazer in 2019 and one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Enterprise Network the same year.
“I always hold up the University of Manitoba as a shining example of diversity and inclusion.”
“I feel so privileged to be able to do what I do, to have been in the roles that I’ve been in, and I will use my voice and my power to speak out for change that is needed,” says Osler, now a past CMA president. “I’d love for my legacy to be a better medical culture, a better medical profession, a better health care system, and a better world for my children and for everyone’s children.”
An unconventional childhood
An otolaryngology-head and neck surgeon at St. Boniface Hospital and an assistant professor in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, Osler grew up on the grounds of the Municipal Hospital of Winnipeg, where her father was the doctor in residence.
He was her inspiration for wanting to become a physician. She easily recalls the idyllic grounds of her unusual childhood home where she’d draw on the walls, play in the grass, admire the peony bushes, and look forward to her dad coming home for lunch.
Much has changed in health care since her father’s era—but not enough, Osler says. She’s been a vocal advocate for virtual health care. One CMA survey showed Canadians are ready for an Amazon-like online experience where health-care services are seamless, trackable and integrated on one platform. Health care is decades behind, she says.
A more progressive future could even mean having digital assistants Alexa or Siri monitor our health and relay health information to our doctors—but first, we need to look at the barriers in terms of privacy, interoperability, infrastructure and education.
“What do we need to do to remove or lower barriers so we can start to adopt technology on a wider scale and deliver health care more effectively and efficiently?” Osler wonders. “I’m not saying it has to be robots delivering health care. It could be something as simple as having online communication, like secure messaging or email, between you and your physician.”
She’s an award-winning physician at the forefront of issues affecting Canada’s doctors and their patients across the country. We asked Dr. Gigi Osler to share her take on:
the deleterious effects of climate change on health
It has been said that climate change is the public health imperative of our time. As an ENT [ear, nose, throat] doctor, I see my patients experiencing more sinus issues, more nasal issues, and reporting more problems with their asthma when smoke from forest fires is in the air. We see climate change affecting health in terms of heat waves, increased spread of some tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, extreme storms like hurricanes or tornadoes or bad thunderstorms. Every day, Canadians are starting to understand climate change isn’t an issue that’s just about carbon pricing. Climate change is a health issue.
a vaccine for COVID-19
The danger of politicizing COVID-19—masks and vaccines—is that people’s lives are at stake. And we can see in countries where public-health advice is followed, lives are saved. It’s unfortunate that vaccination is a political and divisive issue when it is primarily a health issue.
being the first woman of colour to be CMA president
What I didn’t understand was how meaningful that election was to others. After I was elected president, I had a number of physicians—particularly from a younger demographic—come up to me to say, “I’ve never seen someone that looks like me elected to such a prestigious position,” and they were inspired. Someone said to me, “Well, Gigi, that’s because you cannot be what you cannot see.” That’s the power of representation—to inspire others to see themselves in those positions.
her own privilege
As a person of colour, I have been thinking about my own privilege lately. I have an education. I’m light-skinned. I don’t have an accent. I feel incredibly fortunate to have these levels of privilege. So, I’m going to use my voice to ally with others to make change. I am privileged and fortunate and in a position now, and at a stage in my life and my career, where I want to be a changemaker.
inappropriate sexual behaviour and intimidation in medicine
There certainly is a hierarchical structure and a culture that can lead to power imbalances and unacceptable behavior—behaviour that is detrimental to equity, inclusion, health and wellness. I remember as a young female surgical resident—back then you didn’t see a lot of female surgeons or female surgical residents—I was told that as a woman, I’d have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. Fortunately, that is changing and many of us are working hard to ensure that it continues to change.
gender equity and diversity in medicine
I started with the CMA in August 2017, my president-elect year, and the #MeToo movement started in October 2017. Having a woman as a president-elect during the #MeToo movement, just allowed others to share their experiences with me. Women would reach out to me and I would get emails and calls saying, “This happened to me.” Women would tell their stories to me and I would hear their pain. Once you hear that, how could you not want to change things for the better?
maintaining her own mental health
I’ve found yoga very helpful for the mindfulness component. Running always gives me time to decompress and think through problems. Exercise brings my stress levels down and I know I’m a stress eater. So, at the beginning of the pandemic there were a lot of potato chips consumed. Recently, I’ve gotten back to trying to eat healthy, exercising and ensuring I get enough sleep because when I’m not sleeping well, my resilience level goes down and it’s harder to cope.