Writing a new chapter for NOSM

Dr. Sarita Verma

The new Dean at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine

It was some 35 years ago that a younger Sarita Verma was among the thousands who were shocked when CBC reporter Brian Stewart alerted the world to the unprecedented famine in Ethiopia. The country had suffered a drought. Food was scarce. People were simply dying from starvation.

It was also around that time that Verma, a recently-graduated Canadian lawyer involved in humanitarian relief work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, came to realize that there was only so much could be done.

I worked in Africa for a period of time leading up to my desire to go to medical school. And it really was what inspired me to go into medicine, you know, being part of a humanitarian relief environment where being a lawyer wasn’t as helpful as being a physician,” said Verma.

She recently reached a new level in her career when she became the new Dean and CEO of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM). Her appointment was effective July 1.

After watching the most recent graduation ceremonies for NOSM students, she commented it was a remarkable thing to see somebody get their medical degree. She recalled her own graduation in 1991.

My medical degree was quite an event because I went to McMaster. And you know it was a great time. My mother was reluctant to come to the MD because she had been to the LLB, the law degree 10 years before.

My last name starts with a V and the medical class was quite large and she said I don’t want to sit through another one of these things,” Verma smiled.

But you know the family all came to Hamilton. My brother and my sister. My brother is also a physician and I just remember it being a really important day for the family.”

Verma said it was a time for her to find a way to bridge the work she had done as a lawyer for UN humanitarian relief and for the future as an MD.

A DIFFERENT TIME’

I mean it was a different time right. We still have ongoing humanitarian relief issues; look at the cross border issues down south. These are still very compelling stories. Look at Syria. I think people are still inspired, but to a certain extent it was a different time. People really did come together there,” she said commenting on such initiatives as Band Aid and Live Aid concerts.

And it does change your perspective on things. I had a few choices. I could have stayed with the UN and they offered me some pretty interesting places. Mogadishu was one and that was just before Somalia blew up. Kinshasa (Congo) was the other and Kigali was another one, in Rwanda, and these were all just before the challenging things happened there.

So I decided just to go to medical school,” she said.

Over the years Verma’s work has included a variety of academic postings including deputy dean of medicine at the University of Toronto. She said she was pleased to take over at NOSM.

I think the real compelling story about NOSM is that it is driven by a community, that it lives within a community, that it is made up of people that are part of a community and that it has this really amazing opportunity to have an impact on the health of a community.”

She said NOSM grew out of a grassroots movement across Northern Ontario to establish a distinctly Northern medical school with campuses in both Thunder Bay (Lakehead University) and Sudbury (Laurentian University).

And to a certain extent I think it is important to rekindle that sense of coming from the North, being part of the North and looking for solutions for the North.

I think all medical schools should be that way. I know I have colleagues in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Newfoundland who believe the same thing because theirs is the only medical school in their province.

When you have medical schools that don’t have a particular affinity for the geographic area within which they live they lose track of the view that what you’re supposed to be doing is helping to improve the health of that community.

And the best way you can do that is to make sure that health human resources – physicians, nurses, all kinds of health workers – are available and accessible in that area.”

Verma defended the idea that NOSM turns out the greatest percentage of general practitioners who are familiar with working in rural and remote communities.

She said it was important for big city hospitals to have what she termed as the “super sub-specialists”. But she said it was just as important to find more “generalists” to serve more of the population.

A CONCERN ACROSS CANADA

She said it is not just a Northern Ontario problem. She said all across rural Ontario and rural Canada, finding medical generalists is a significant challenge.

You know if you train people in an urban setting where they get used to being part of a quaternary care hospital they don’t feel either confident or competent to work in an environment where all the technology isn’t there, all the specialists aren’t there. And so you end up training them to actually feel comfortable to stay where they are.”

In Canada let’s be honest; what’s called the rural generalist pathway does not yet exist. I believe it should, because in the end a rural generalist is actually at the bottom of the health- care pyramid.”

Verma said the tip of the pyramid is the high-end super sub-specialist that deals with a limited scope of highly specialized care.

She said the rural generalist is the base of the foundation that supports the pyramid and “is the one that we need the most in Canada.”

As she gets down to the business of running the medical school, Verma said it not something she plans on doing alone. She said she plans to involve Northerners in the work ahead.

I think there are two messages I haven’t had a chance to reinforce,” said Verma.

One is I expect to hear from people – I am dean@nosm.ca – I want to hear from people. I want to know what they think the medical school should do as we co-create this strategic plan for the next five years,” she said.

The second message is that we will be starting a campaign for fundraising and every little bit helps. We are not just going after massive donations.”

NAMING RIGHTS

Verma said she wants to explore a new fundraising trend that is happening at medical institutions in Canada.

It would be really exciting to have a naming opportunity for this medical school,” she said.

She also advocated for a pan-Northern funding drive in support of NOSM, much like what happened in the 1990s as the idea of the Northern medical school was first being conceived.

So if the medical community that is part of this Journal sees themselves as participating as the municipalities got together (in the 1990s), if the medical community and the municipalities were willing to get together, I think it would be wonderful to raise that kind of money.

We’d raise money with a third of it for students for pathways and bursaries; a third of it for physicians like endowed chairs for faculty teachers. We want to recruit some of the best teachers in the world. And a third of the money for some capital. Although we are 15 years old, we already need space to grow.”

That would also fit in, she said, with another priority which is to increase the number of medical students at NOSM. Right now it is set by the province at 64 applicants. Verma said she believes there is room for at least another 10 students.

Filed in: Briefs, Education, Featured, News

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