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Dr. Peter Nickerson and Dr. Joss Reimer sit onstage, each holding a microphone.

Dr. Joss Reimer (right) speaks with Dr. Peter Nickerson at the Max Rady College of Medicine awards evening.

Empathy all-important, health leader tells future and current physicians

March 5, 2024 — 

In medicine, truly caring about the patient matters more than in-depth knowledge, a prominent Manitoba doctor told an audience of medical students and physicians at a UM awards event.

“Our empathy is more important than our expertise,” said Dr. Joss Reimer, the public health expert who led the province’s COVID-19 vaccine implementation taskforce and is currently chief medical officer of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

“The number 1 role for physicians is the relationship with the patient,” Reimer said. “As much as we need to know the facts and memorize a lot of details, the most important thing, [as] any patient will tell you … is the empathy that the physician shows.”

Reimer, a two-time UM alum who earned her medical degree in 2008 and her master’s in public health in 2013, is an associate professor of community health sciences at the Max Rady College of Medicine.

In May, she will start her term as the high-profile elected president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which represents about 100,000 doctors across the country.

She was the guest speaker at the 14th annual Teacher Recognition and Manitoba Medical Students’ Association Awards evening on Feb. 28 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. At the event, attended by more than 120 medical students, teachers, faculty and deans, she spoke in conversation with Dr. Peter Nickerson, dean of the Max Rady College of Medicine and the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

Reimer, who grew up in Winkler, Man., recalled entering medical school as one of a tiny number of students with a bachelor of arts, rather than a science degree. Today, she said, medical schools are admitting more students who bring diverse kinds of knowledge and experience.

“The practice of medicine is a lot more than science,” she said.

Part of what motivated her to seek the CMA presidency, Reimer said, was her concern for physician wellness and her traumatic experience of burnout a number of years ago.

“I really wanted to … push for changes to the system, to create a better work environment so that nobody has to experience burnout.”

In her leadership role during the pandemic, she said, she became skilled at providing information to politicians and other decision-makers to help inform their decisions. As CMA president, she said, “I want to keep using that knowledge and those skills to make the systems better.”

She plans to advocate for team-based health care, she said, recalling that when she practised obstetrics at a clinic that included professionals such as a social worker, occupational therapist, dietician and pharmacist, patients were much better served than they are by a doctor “trying to be everything to everyone.” 

Reimer said she is concerned about the decreasing public trust in vaccines. “So many people took advantage of the pandemic to spread misinformation.… It’s contributed to what we’re seeing in Europe, with the measles outbreaks that I presume are coming here soon.”

But doctors are still highly trusted professionals, Reimer said, and vaccine-hesitant patients may shift their thinking when doctors show that they genuinely care.  

“The best opportunity for advocacy is in that relationship that you already have with a patient, where they already trust you,” she said.

“I also think physicians should be doing lots of advocacy…. Some people will be in the university, advocating for educational changes. Some will be in government, trying to do internal advocacy with politicians. Some are going to be out on social media or in the news, trying to speak to the public and shift the conversation there. And all of those are really critical areas.”

The awards evening included the presentation of 21 Teacher Recognition Awards, voted on by medical students to honour teaching excellence in categories such as innovation, inspiration, mentorship, patient advocacy and small-group teaching.

Four awards were also presented to medical students who have distinguished themselves in the categories of citizenship, global health, community service and leadership.

The teaching and student award winners are listed on the Max Rady College of Medicine website.

Watch an Instagram Reel recapping the awards evening.

Dr. Faisal Siddiqui accepts a teaching award from a medical student.

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