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Dr. Gigi Osler, President of the Canadian Medical Association, in Winnipeg Manitoba, August 19, 2018.LYLE STAFFORD/The Globe and Mail

Sir William Osler is commonly known as the father of modern medicine. When the legendary physician was president of the Canadian Medical Association in 1884, the profession was almost exclusively male and white.

Now, almost 135 years later, his great-great-great niece, Flordeliz (Gigi) Osler, is poised to become the president of the CMA and she, and the profession, could not be more different.

“Mine is the face of medicine now,” she says. “When you go to a hospital today, the face you are very likely to see is female and of a different ethnicity.”

As the demographics of medicine – and Canadian society more generally – change, so too must its leadership, Dr. Osler says.

“Diversity is important. And I’ve come to understand and appreciate that representation is really important too,” she says.

“I can’t tell you how people, how many women in particular, have said to me what it means to them to have someone like them in this position – a woman of colour, a woman with a family, a woman who strives for work-life balance.”

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Dr. Gigi Osler, President of the Canadian Medical Association, in Winnipeg Manitoba, August 19, 2018.LYLE STAFFORD/The Globe and Mail

Dr. Osler has also assumed leadership of the CMA, the group that represents Canada’s 85,000 physicians, residents and medical students, in the “Me Too” era.

“Physicians are starting to tell their stories and they are touching, shocking and horrifying, just as they are in other professions,” she says.

Dr. Osler, a Winnipeg native, is the child of immigrant parents; her father was a physician from India, and her mother a nurse from the Philippines. “So I have to qualify that I’m a relative by marriage, but I still wear the Osler name proudly.”

She studied medicine at the University of Manitoba and works today as an ear, nose and throat surgeon at St. Boniface Hospital and as an assistant professor at her alma mater.

Dr. Osler takes over the CMA at a tumultuous time. Medicine has changed markedly in recent decades and more dramatic changes are coming with the advent of genomics, artificial intelligence and more.

While patient expectations are growing, so too are financial pressures as governments try to limit physician costs. Rates of burnout, mental illness and suicide are soaring among doctors.

Against this backdrop, Dr. Osler says her priority will be promoting physician health wellness, and mental health in particular.

“Medical culture values self-sufficiency, stoicism and perfection,” she says. “We’re taught patients come first and that requires sacrifices but too often those sacrifices are marriages, families, our health.”

Dr. Osler says this is ultimately bad for patients or the health system. “If you’re not well, if you’re burned out, depressed, struggling, how can you serve patients to the best of your ability?”

Her message to fellow physicians echoes the one you hear during safety demonstrations on airplanes: “You have to put your own oxygen mask first.” And she is encouraged by the fact that attitudes are changing along with demographics.

“Some of the change is gender-driven, but some of it is generational,” she says.

“When I talk to younger male physicians, they have the same concerns as their female colleagues: They want to practice differently, they want to spend more time with their kids, they want work-life balance.

“It gives me hope things actually will change.”

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