Physician assistant program leads way to family practice

Dr. Ming Li, Hospitalist, Timmins and District Hospital

Dr. Ming Li, Hospitalist, Timmins and District Hospital

The two-year PA program was a way for Dr. Ming Li, a newcomer from China, to qualify as a physician in Timmins

In 2006, when Dr. Ming Li applied for immigration, she had little insight into the difficulties she would encounter on the way to becoming a practising physician in Canada.
Back home in China, Li had been an internal medicine specialist, and she initially believed her diplomas and work experience would be recognized in Canada. She’d soon learn it wasn’t quite so easy.

“Actually, it was pretty frustrating the first couple of years,” Li said. “I did get an interview for residency two times, and wasn’t matched, before I considered a physician assistant (program).”
Physician assistants (PAs) work under the supervision of a physician and can perform a variety of duties, including patient interviews and taking medical histories, performing physical examinations, and offering counselling on preventive health care.

PAs were first introduced into the provincial health-care system in 2007, but the profession evolved out of the U.S in the 1960s as a way to employ highly skilled medics coming out of the military.
In Ontario, the two-year physician assistant program is offered at McMaster University in Hamilton and at the University of Toronto, in association with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences.

For Li, the program offered her another way to remain involved in the medical profession while she adjusted to her adopted homeland.

“I just love this profession,” said Li, who decided that becoming a physician assistant would still allow her to practise medicine, just through a different lens.

After graduating from the McMaster program in 2011, Li’s options for employment were somewhat limited, as few hospitals were hiring physician assistants at the time. Though she received a few offers from practices in the Toronto area, including in psychiatric and family clinics, it was a conversation with Joan Ludwig, chief nursing officer at the Timmins and District Hospital, who put her on a course for Northern Ontario.

“She made me feel so comfortable, and she gave me lots of information on the community,” Li recalled. “So, I said, ‘Why don’t I just go take a look?’”

At her interview, the people were friendly, and the physicians were supportive of her goal to eventually enter medical residency as part of the journey to become reinstated as a practising physician. Li was sold on the idea, and made her way to Timmins in December 2011.

She remained in the role for two and a half years, during which time she came to appreciate Timmins and its people, who embraced her and her husband, ensuring they felt accepted in the community.

“Because they knew I had no family or friends when I first came here, the physicians, the hospital staff, the pharmacists and nursing staff, they always tried to include me,” Li said. “They invited me to Christmas parties at their home; in the summer they tried to invite me and my husband to their cottages, so they just made me feel like it’s home.”

After working as a PA for two and a half years, Li entered NOSM’s family medicine residency program in 2014 and graduated two years later. She’s been working at Timmins and District Hospital as a hospitalist ever since.

Now fully integrated into the community, Li and her husband enjoy all Timmins has to offer, including snowmobiling and ice fishing in winter and camping during the warmer months. Li cited lower housing prices as a welcome bonus, and the warm, close-knit sense of community mirrors that of her childhood in China.

In her current role, Li does a little of everything: she cares for patients in hospital, but also does some surgical assistance work, and takes on some emergency room shifts at the Temiskaming Hospital in New Liskeard.

That broad scope of work is something she said she wouldn’t be able to do if she was working in a larger city like Toronto, but it’s something she finds hugely rewarding.

Equally rewarding is the gratitude she receives from patients who have chosen her as their health-care provider.

“I felt like they are so appreciative of the care we provide to them, and in my life experience of working in different hospitals and cities, I find people here make me feel like I really did something for them, which I’m always trying to do,” said Li, who plans to open her own family medicine practice this year.

“I find people really appreciate that, and that made me feel really satisfied.”

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