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Health inequity is a significant problem for many residents of Ontario’s northern and remote communities.SUPPLIED

The blue-and-white signs outside its buildings in Sudbury and Thunder Bay display the name “Northern Ontario School of Medicine.” But those familiar with the innovative mandate of this 15-year institution prefer to assign a different, and perhaps more apt, translation of its acronym.

“No Ordinary School of Medicine is a small medical school that has had a really big impact,” says Sarita Verma, dean, president and CEO of NOSM, which was launched in 2005 as a faculty of medicine for Laurentian University in Sudbury and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. “Today, we’re building on our success with a new plan focused on four strategic directions: transform health human resource planning, advance social accountability, innovate health profession education, and strengthen research capacity in northern Ontario.”

From the start, NOSM established itself as unique and out-of-the-ordinary among the world’s medical schools. Beyond its Sudbury and Thunder Bay campuses, NOSM operates as a distributed school where students learn at partners' sites in 90 communities spread out across 800,000 square kilometres. It was the first in the world to include an eight-month, community-based clerkship for all third-year students. It was also hailed as a pioneer when it established social accountability as its founding mandate.

NOSM’s goal, ultimately, is to transform health care for the northern Ontario communities that, collectively, make up the school’s campus.

“Health inequity is a significant problem for many residents of Ontario’s northern communities,” says Dr. Verma. “Factors such as geography, culture and socio-economic conditions have made it harder for rural, Indigenous and francophone residents to access health care.”

A recent Health Quality Ontario study on health-care challenges in northern Ontario found that people in this part of the province have expected lifespans almost three years shorter than the Ontario average, are far more likely to die prematurely from avoidable causes such as suicide and heart disease, and are less able to see a primary care provider when they’re sick.

The report also highlights the logistical challenges of delivering health care to remote, extremely low-population communities, and the need for care that’s sensitive to language barriers and cultural experiences.

"Health inequity is a significant problem for many residents of Ontario’s northern communities. Factors such as geography, culture and socio-economic conditions have made it harder for rural, Indigenous and francophone residents to access health care.” Sarita Verma - Dean, president and CEO of Northern Ontario School of MedicineSUPPLIED

NOSM continues to address these challenges with out-of-the-box strategic thinking. For instance, it is developing a “rural generalist pathway” that will identify high school students with an interest and aptitude for rural medicine, and will guide them through undergraduate and medical school, and all the way to in-community training and practice. In the past, NOSM has also partnered with Science North to organize health science-focused day camps for kids, as well as career days in Indigenous high schools.

“Sometimes it’s hard for students to imagine being in a rural community,” says Sarah Newbery, assistant dean at NOSM and chief of staff of the North of Superior Healthcare Group, which includes two hospitals and a long-term care home. “But if we can give young people exposure to aspects of the medical experience in high school and then follow these learners through med school, into post-grad training and then further support them in the community, then we can start to change the thinking around being a doctor in northern Ontario.”

NOSM also continues to build on its social accountability mandate through initiatives focused on equity and inclusion, including the appointment this summer of Joseph LeBlanc as the school’s first associate dean for equity and inclusion.

“For health care to be truly relevant, health-care professionals need to be trained to meet the people in front of them with respect,” says Dr. LeBlanc. “We also need to support our equity and inclusion efforts with research that can inform decision-making and advocacy, and that reflect demographics in the north.”

Increasing awareness about the challenges faced by northern Ontario communities is important to NOSM’s continued success, says Dr. Verma. This month, the school is launching an online trivia game challenging Canadians to test their knowledge about health care in the north. The game, online at www.thenosmchallenge.ca, gives players a chance to win $1,000, as well as compete for a northern Ontario community to help them win a $10,000 donation to a health centre or hospital.

“We want to engage people and show them we’re No Ordinary School of Medicine,” says Dr. Verma. “We’re an amazing group of educators, students and community partners who really care about transforming health and health care for people in northern Ontario.”


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.