“As physicians, we’re accountable for making our system better”: reflections on the Health Summit from a first-time CMA Ambassador

The CMA sponsored 42 Ambassadors to attend the Health Summit in Winnipeg


As I face the reality of medical school resuming, I am taking a break from learning the innervations of the brachial plexus to reflect on four incredible days of learning at the CMA Health Summit in Winnipeg.

Disruptive innovation for a healthier future was the central theme of the Health Summit. As a first-time CMA Ambassador with an interest in innovation, advocacy and physician leadership, this event was a great chance to learn more.

CMA Ambassador activities kicked off on Sunday with a meet-and-greet reception at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. There were 42 of us from coast to coast – 17 medical students, 16 residents and 9 early-career physicians. I can now proudly say that I have friends across the country!

As Ambassadors, we were given our own innovation challenge: to come up with a device to solve a health care need. Using pipe cleaners and aluminum foil to “fabricate” a prototype, our collective innovations ranged from a pap smear device to let patients perform their own pap test, to a wrist band with an automated micro-injectable needle to inject naloxone to prevent opioid overdoses.

For me, it was incredible to see the innovative thinking that happens when you get smart, socially-minded people together to solve a problem.

Then the Summit began. Day 1 was all about technology, big data and artificial or augmented intelligence.

I was awed by the possibilities of artificial intelligence in reaching underserved communities and in personalizing medicine. But at the same time, I wondered how current resources could be used more efficiently to bring about health care reform.

I was shocked to learn that some parts of Canada still do not have access to clean drinking water or phones. Before new technologies can be adopted, we need to ensure that all communities have the basic resources that they need.

Day 2 shifted from artificial to ‘authentic’ intelligence, and the humanistic side of medicine.

Patient advocate Judith John delivered a powerful keynote, reminding us that compassion and empathy make a world of difference in patient care. During this time of technological innovation, these are things medicine must preserve.

There were also discussions on improving access and reducing health inequalities, and questions about caring for marginalized patients without appearing judgmental. As someone who works with vulnerable populations, Dawnmarie Harriott explained the importance of how a question is asked rather than the question itself. Building a patient-physician relationship founded on trust and empathy is key.

Dr. Gigi Osler, the new president of the CMA, took the time to meet the Ambassadors, openly answering questions about women and diversity in medicine and the increasing unmatched rates for new medical graduates. We also participated in breakout sessions where delegates put forward their own ideas on how to innovate to improve Canada’s health care system.

Then on day three, the Ambassadors had the chance to attend the AGM, where we were able to observe medical politics in action and learn about the organizational structure of the CMA.

The highlight of my experience, though, was meeting astronaut Chris Hadfield, and hearing his inspiring take on achieving the impossible.

I left Winnipeg feeling inspired, motivated and optimistic for the future. Although I’m still in the early stages of my training, this experience made me consider various career paths in medicine and how I can contribute to improving our health care system, even as a medical student.

Political advocacy is certainly one avenue, a fact that was highlighted during a panel on barriers to scaling up successful innovations. System issues often require system solutions, and that’s why it’s so important to have our voice heard at the political level.

While there were many takeaways from this conference, an important lesson I learned is that even when searching for innovation, we need to use an equity lens to ensure that the system is working the same for everyone.

I end this reflection with two quotes that stayed with me from the conference.

“Your life is the sum of all the little things that you do next.” – Chris Hadfield

So, what will you do next to improve Canada’s health care system?

“Spend your time creating the future instead of protecting the past” – Zayna Khayat, closing keynote speaker

Grace Zhao is a medical student at the University of Toronto, who joined the CMA Ambassador program in 2018.  She was one of 42 Ambassadors who attended the CMA Health Summit in Winnipeg.