Leading by example Winnipeg surgeon Osler set to become president of Canadian Medical Association

As Canada’s doctors descend on Winnipeg this week at their annual meeting, a local woman will be the one helping to chart their course into the future.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/08/2018 (1631 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As Canada’s doctors descend on Winnipeg this week at their annual meeting, a local woman will be the one helping to chart their course into the future.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, Gigi Osler, a ear, nose and throat surgeon for the past 20 years, will be installed as president of the Canadian Medical Association, which represents more than 85,000 physicians across the country.

It’s a monumental challenge in a nation facing a multitude of health-care crises, but one Osler — head of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at St. Boniface Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba’s Max Rady College of Medicine — is ready to tackle.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dr. Gigi Osler cleans a patient's ears at her clinic in Winnipeg.

“It’s going to be a busy year, but a great year,” Osler said two weeks ago, during a rare break at her bustling clinic on the sixth floor of the medical building at 400 Tache Ave., across from St. Boniface Hospital.

“It’s such an incredible privilege,” she said, softly. “I take the responsibility seriously. I want to make sure my service will be of value, will make a difference to Canadians.

“The association is trying to unite and inspire Canadian physicians. As the president, I’m the primary face and spokesperson. My role is to speak out on behalf of the association on the issues and causes that matter to Canadian doctors and patients.”

Last year, Osler, 49, a mother of a son, 21, and daughter, 18 — stepped into the role as president-elect, starting a three-year term that ends with a year as past-president.

This year, her primary focus is on improving the lives of Canadian doctors, and their patients.

“I’ve scaled my practice back significantly so I can devote more time to the CMA presidency,” she noted. “It’s a lot of travel. You’re asked to represent the CMA at a variety of different events. You’re the primary spokesperson for the 85,000 members. It’s an important service to health care and the association.”

As of Wednesday, Osler will become the 14th Manitoban to be named president in the 151-year history of the national association — but the first woman from the province to fill the role. She will be the eighth Canadian woman to lead the organization.

She believes the fact she is a female surgeon, a proud Winnipegger, and a person of colour will send an important message to young people dreaming of one day assuming a leadership role in medicine.

“I take the responsibility seriously. I want to make sure my service will be of value, will make a difference to Canadians.”

“I think it (a female president) is an important message,” Osler explained. “Almost 55 per cent of medical students in Canada today are women, and 42 per cent of doctors in Canada are women.

“I think for many of these young women to see to see a woman (president), particularly a woman who is a surgeon, it’s meaningful for them. It’s important to be a role model. It enables them to see themselves as being a leader one day.”

A soft-spoken, diminutive woman, Osler literally crackles with energy, and her passion for her patients and her profession is on ready display. The busy doctor laughs readily and often, and is a devoted dog lover who spent the first few minutes of a wide-ranging interview sharing stories, and smartphone photos, of her family’s pet.

Asked whether it’s important for a Winnipegger to assume the leadership of a national organization, her eyes sparkle with hometown pride.

“I’m a proud Winnipegger,” she declared. “Often, when I’m giving speeches across the country, I’ll mention I’m a Manitoban and a Winnipegger, especially during the NHL playoffs. I was tempted to put on my Jets jersey.

“I think it’s a great city and a fabulous province. I think we’re often underestimated and overlooked.”

As CMA president and a person of colour, she hopes to continue a trend towards greater diversity in her profession and its leadership.

“When you look at the faces of the doctors you see, especially in medical school, it’s more diverse than ever,” she said. “I think we need more diversity in leadership. It’s important to see more representation from all of the groups that are under-represented in leadership — people of colour, women, Indigenous people, the LGBTTQ* community, people with disabilities. It’s extremely important.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dr. Gigi Osler is the new president of the Canadian Medical Association.

For her part, Osler said she witnessed discrimination during her time in medical school at the U of M in the early 1990s, but it was subtle.

“People would say, ‘Oh, surgery is really tough. If you want a family, don’t think about surgery. You should go into family medicine.’ You were kind of swayed away from certain specialties, because they were known as being very demanding,” she recalled. “But I love surgery, love being in the operating room… Despite being told surgery is a demanding field if you are a woman and want to have a family, I just decided this is what I love to do and I’m going to do it.”

It would also not be far from the mark to say the CMA’s incoming president was literally born into the field of health care. Her father, a doctor from India, and her mother, a nurse from the Philippines, met while working at the former Winnipeg Municipal Hospital, now the Riverview Health Centre.

As a young child, she played on the hospital’s beautiful green space, and lived in a historic stone house on the grounds.

“It was the doctor’s residence,” recalled Osler, who has two younger brothers. “I think it’s now a parking lot… It was a wonderful place to grow up. You sort of grew up immersed in this environment. I saw the importance of the work my parents did. It made for a nice family life.

“When my dad had to go to work, he would just go outside the door and walk across the lawn, and he’d come home for lunch.

“I talk about my parents quite a bit. My mother raised me to be a strong, independent woman, and my father was my inspiration and role model when I was thinking about a career in medicine. He has since passed, but I can only imagine how proud he would be. He was a very quiet and humble man.”

As part of a wide-ranging interview, the incoming head of the doctors’ lobby group fielded questions on the critical medical issues of the day, even those not in her purview. She had little to say about the Manitoba government’s sweeping hospital reorganization plan, saying that is being watched closely by the CMA provincial arm, Doctors Manitoba.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dr. Gigi Osler is a Winnipeg native and the child of immigrants.

“As a national association, we don’t wade into a lot of the provincial issues,” she said.

One of the association’s goals, however, is to develop strategies for dealing with the nation’s opioid crisis.

“What we are doing is bringing together this community of doctors, different doctors from across the country, all with expertise in the opioid crisis, to form this national almost like a think tank to problem solve, share strategies… and solutions to this crisis that continues to kill Canadians every single day,” Osler said.

“The solutions have to be multi-pronged — from physicians, from government, law-enforcement, advocacy groups. As physicians, we are aware of it and have to make sure that we are prescribing properly. We’re seeing more and more physicians educating themselves on opioids, and speaking out on the need for more resources in the community.”

The medical association has also circled Oct. 17 on its calendar, the day marijuana is set to become legal in Canada.

“If you talk to any physician, we are still concerned with the effects of cannabis on our young people, especially below the age of 25,” Osler said. “A lot of physicians are concerned once legalization occurs with the safety of cannabis products, particularly the edibles, in the house, more accessible to children, for example.

“We still have to watch it. Alcohol is legal, but I don’t think anybody says alcohol is good for you.”

She also hopes to use her year-long presidency to push for dramatic improvements in the use of technology and innovation to transform health care in Canada.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dr. Gigi Osler examines columnist Doug Speirs at her clinic in Winnipeg.

“We need to change the way we are delivering health care in Canada today,” she said. “We need to make it more efficient, more cost-effective, and to help reduce some of the inequities in the current system. I think we are underusing available technology to do that… We still use fax machines; that is still how a lot of communication occurs between doctors’ offices and hospitals. Why not wireless technology, some kind of messaging?”

For the next 12 months, the crusading surgeon will be focusing her abundance of energy on making life better for Canada’s doctors, which will translate into better patient care.

“For the population, we are really interested in the future of better health and how we can achieve that,” she said. “For physicians, we want them to be healthy and not burnt out.

“I truly believe healthy doctors lead to healthy patients. We need to look after Canadians doctors so they can continue to deliver the highest quality health care.”


Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

Second Osler to lead CMA

In a unique historical twist, Winnipeg surgeon Gigi Osler is not the first Osler to head up the Canadian Medical Association.

In 1884, that post was filled by Sir William Osler, the world-renowned Canadian physician whose credits include being a founding professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

The legendary physician, who died in 1919 and has been described as the “father of modern medicine,” was the great-great-great uncle of Gigi Osler’s husband, John, a well-known Winnipeg businessman.

“As far as we can tell, I am the only Osler in Canada that is a doctor,” she noted. “He is one of the most esteemed medical clinicians of our time… I think when people hear the name (Osler) and see me, it’s a bit of a disconnect. I take no offence to it…

“There are pictures of Sir William Osler and he’s this dignified white man with a handlebar moustache, and they get me instead.”

— Doug Speirs

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