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Interview with Dr. Sarita Verma

Updated: Jan 18


📷 NOSM.ca

Journalist: Amy Stewart


Amy: Hello and welcome to SciSection! My name is Amy Stewart and I am the journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. Today's special guest is Dr. Sarita Verma, the Dean, president, and CEO of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, Canada's first standalone medical university with campuses in Thunder Bay and Sudbury! Thank you so much for coming on the show today!

Dr. Verma: It's my pleasure thank you for having me!

Amy: So to begin, why don't you give the listeners an introduction of what NOSM is and why it is unique to any other medical school in Canada?

Dr. Verma: It's absolutely an amazing school NOSM - Northern Ontario School of Medicine - which is about to become NOSM university, as we fondly say is "no ordinary school of medicine". It was created in 2002 by a government strategy. So it's not actually a traditional faculty of medicine within a university but because of a number of circumstances we're about to become Canada's first freestanding medical university. So in a short period of time what a historical rise and basically it was created to address the crisis of the physician shortages in Northern Ontario. Since then we have branched out into training physician assistants, dietitians, physiotherapists, medical physicists, amongst others and doing research and distributed education across 800 000 square kilometers.

Amy: That is very cool. It seems like a very diverse medical program. So many different types of medical careers you guys educate there, tell us about your own educational and career background and how that brought you to your current position.

Dr. Verma: Well I just wanted to add though that NOSM's really interesting because its focus is on Indigenous and Francophone populations and our entry positions are 17% Indigenous and about 25% francophone. That’s way above the numbers for Indigenous in the country. And we've actually now produced 800 doctors, so we're graduating our 14th class in the spring. But that’s pretty spectacular for a school that is just a little school. I personally began my career in Ottawa, I'm from Ottawa and I went to law school in Ottawa at the University of Ottawa. I practiced law for a good 15 years, worked in the foreign service and then I went back to medical school. I went to McMaster for my medical degree, did my residency training in family medicine at Queen's University and then I was entered into the dean's world. I ended up as the deputy dean at the University of Toronto and now I'm the dean at NOSM. So I've been at five of the six medical schools in Ontario and I haven't quite yet been to Western. My journey has been mostly motivated by the need for social accountability and for having a transformative change-making impact.

Amy: That’s a very impressive career, it seems like you’ve made your way all over Ontario and I'm sure you've made a tremendous impact. For my next question I've seen that the need for medical professionals in Northern Ontario is like you said tremendous, it is quite the need. Rural communities are in need of over 300 physicians especially ones trained in psychiatry, emergency medicine, and palliative care. Now to tackle that issue NOSM has introduced the rural generalist pathway. Tell us about how this stream works and why it is so important for the improvement of medical care in Northern Ontario.

Dr. Verma: It's such an amazing innovation and in Canada it’s the only one of its kind. It is based on an Australian model where the challenge is how do you get people who graduate from medicine who want to migrate and work in rural settings. That’s the continued challenge in Canada. Most people want to settle in an urban environment. So the rural generalist pathway is actually part of our strategic plan to transform the approach to planning and delivery of the workforce supply. What it's about is training people in the North, for the North, by the North, with a focus on people who become competent in rural practice. Rural doctors are very different, they do everything from delivering babies, c-sections, hip replacements, emergency medicine, critical care, as opposed to maybe a family doctor in an urban environment who mostly sees a stable patient environment population but also might just do mostly preventative medicine, surveillance, and referrals. So rural medicine is really amazing, exciting, and it can offer the chance to do adventure, which is what we're really offering people.

Amy: That is very cool. It's crazy in the Northern communities I'm sure there's only one or two doctors so they definitely need to be trained in all those different areas and it's awesome that NOSM can offer that. And I'm sure as the dean you are incredibly proud of all the work and research done at NOSM. What are some of your most outstanding achievements at your school?

Dr. Verma: You know, we call it "awesome NOSM". And again I think that’s just because it is awesome, it's inspiring. I came out of semi-retirement to come here because number one the learners and the teachers are from the North, they're focused on being socially accountable and so people say "what does that mean?". Well social accountability is actually serving the needs of the community that you're a part of. And NOSM has won several international awards for being a leader in social accountability. That means that you have an impact on population health. That means that you actually deliver health care professionals or graduates into those communities where they're most needed. So that would be the most significant contribution NOSM's made but in research NOSM is actually leading the way of population based research. And we have a center for social accountability that does research in primary care and in population health, particularly on issues related to First Nations and Métis people and Indigenous needs like food security and advocacy for water security, which are really important. Finally we're starting to now get really interested in climate change. Climate change is the huge impact on health and in particular in Northern communities where you know pesticides or poor water, these all have a huge impact and they're all caused by unfriendly issues to the planet. Our social accountability goes to Indigenous, Francophone communities, rural communities, and the planet.

Amy: That is amazing how NOSM takes all these intersecting issues and teaches that in their medical school so that when these doctors and medical professionals go into the real world they can really apply all their knowledge to help everyone. That’s awesome.

Dr. Verma: By the way, these students do fantastic. They get matched in their residency match 100%. They become leaders. Our students graduates become doctors who make a big difference.

Amy: For my final question, in such a competitive field like medicine, what advice would you give to undergraduate students who are looking to stand out on med school applications and what would you say to keep them motivated?

Dr. Verma: You know, I tell people this about every path that they take. Whatever you do, be authentic. Don't try to game the system and try to force yourself into a mold that you think admissions is looking for. If you're really authentically interested, at NOSM in particular you're going to be attractive to us if you're interested in rural medicine, and if you want to stay in the North, and of course if you're from the North. Also if you're interested in a career as a clinician scientist at U of T or you want to have a career as an urban physician, be authentic, tell people that’s what you want and be passionate. Be authentic and be passionate. Because you know this is a lifelong career, and if you really can't stand the sight of blood or you don't want to talk to people who might be feeling nauseous and might be throwing up, then don’t go into medicine. Go into something else. But if you really are passionate about making a difference in someone's life you can become such an important person to them. To me, doctors are so important and teachers are so important. They're the two careers that can really change people's lives.

Amy: That is some very good advice. I definitely think getting into med school isn't just about checking off on a list all the things that they're looking for, you right being authentic and pursuing your interests and being passionate is the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Dr. Verma: And know that you’re going into a career that is a lot of fun. It's challenging, it's tiring, but it’s a lot of fun.

Amy: Thank you so much for joining us today Dr. Verma. The work you are doing at NOSM is so inspiring and I think you are setting a precedent for medical education in Canada.

Dr. Verma: It's my pleasure and good luck to you thank you for doing such a great interview.

Amy: Thank you so much for coming on, that was awesome. That’s it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews.