Wellness Efforts Exist but National Strategy Needed


by David Hodges

The Medical Post

January 11, 2005

Needs of student doctors being acknowledged; variety of initiatives at local level.

TORONTO - Issues pertaining to the health and well-being of Canadian medical students have been recognized in recent years, but resources for providing na­tionalleadership and advocacy in this arena are still lacking.

In similar fashion to recent ini­tiatives spearheaded by Canadian physicians-such as the Cana­dian Physician Health Network, founded in 200l-Canada's stu­dent doctors have been taking matters into their own hands.

In response to student concerns about wellness and mental health issues, the Canadian Fed­eration of Medical Students (CFMS)--a volunteer national organization representing more than 6,000 medical students at 13 member schools across Canada ­launched its first National Stu­dent Wellness Week in 2004.

The event, which took place in early May, emphasized the impor­tance of physical and mental well-being while managing the stresses of medical student life. As part of Wellness Week, the CFMS also launched the inaugu­ral Medical Student Awareness Day, designed to inform the med­ical community as well as the community at large about the health and well-being needs of student doctors.

"Efforts are being made," said Ryan Chowdhury, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Alberta who served as wellness officer for the CFMS in 2003. "It's just a matter of making sure the networks we currently have exist and that we improve on them."

Part of the problem, Chowd­hury said, is that wellness pro­grams are run independently across the country and lack stan­dards. Most of what is available is what students themselves or medical faculties have created on their own. "So it can vary quite a bit, depending on what school you go to."

Positive changes

Dr. Mamta Gautam, an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients, also lamented that not enough is be­ing done to promote health and well-being in Canada's medical schools. She did, however, cite programs at the University of Ot­tawa and the University of Cal­gary that are in the later stages of embodying health and well-being into the curriculum as examples of "positive changes ahead."

In general, Dr. Gautam spoke highly of the various initiatives promoted by the CFMS, a sentiment shared by Dr. Derek Pud­dester, director of the faculty wellness program at the Univer­sity of Ottawa.

In this year's October issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, Dr. Puddester wrote about in­creased recognition and aware­ness of the health and well-being of Canada's doctors and medical students in the wake of the SARS crisis. He noted initiatives spear­headed by the CFMS have helped students at Dalhousie Univer­sity's faculty of medicine in Hali­fax gain access to a unique peer support program that sponsors activities focused on the human­ism of medicine and themes of personal health and wellness.

In addition, the CFMS focuses on the role of partners and family members during an annual "sig­nificant others" night, he said. Another program, at the Univer­sity of Ottawa, offers access to a mentorship program and health initiatives.

Dr. Allan Peterkin, a Toronto psychiatrist who wrote Staying Human During Residency Training, said Canada is at the fore­front of wellness programs. "This batch of medical stu­dents is reaping the benefits," he said, pointing to resources such as the Canadian Medical Associa­tion Centre for Physician Health and Well-being, which provides information for physicians, med­ical students and their families.

Lack of funding

Chowdhury acknowledged the benefits of recent initiatives facil­itated in the last five to 10 years, but said student health and well­being awareness is still hampered by funding--or rather, a lack of it. For example, the CFMS pro­vides $6,000 per year for wellness programs at the University of Al­berta, he said, "which is very lit­tle compared with what could be out there.

"There's a difference being made by these programs, so as long as we realize that and con­tinue to fund these programs, I think we can do a lot to make sure problems that existed in the past don't exist in the future."