Statements & Speeches

Bill S-248, An Act respecting National Physicians’ Day

September 18, 2018

Hon. Judith G. Seidman: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill S-248, An Act respecting National Physicians’ Day at second reading. This bill would declare the first day of May each year as National Physicians’ Day, creating an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s physicians and medical residents, and bring attention to their contributions to patient care, research, teaching and innovation.

It is easy to forget the sacrifices that doctors make regularly on behalf of their patients, whether it is forfeiting time with loved ones, long work hours or the burden of the many life-and-death decisions they face. National Physicians’ Day would recognize the everyday selflessness of our doctors amid the myriad challenges of our health care system. A recent survey conducted by the Canadian Medical Association found that 54 per cent of physicians are showing signs of burnout. Many sacrifice work-life balance to provide the highest standard of care to their patients, and they do it while contending with a health care system in need of comprehensive reform.

The 2015 report of the federal government’s Advisory Panel on Healthcare Innovation documented some of the systemic challenges that doctors face, including the ways in which cumbersome regulations and perverse incentives stifle their creativity and innovation. The report notes that while Canada’s physicians have made enormous contributions to our health care system, the current mode of organizing and funding our system is holding them back from playing a larger leadership role.

As we celebrate the tireless work of our doctors in helping others, we would do well to consider the constraints of the system in which they practise, both as a barrier to their professional satisfaction and as a detriment to the quality of care that Canadians receive.

Nevertheless, National Physicians’ Day is an occasion to recognize our doctors’ achievements with the national attention they deserve. It is also a time to celebrate the profession’s pioneers, especially those who blazed trails for the diverse and vibrant medical community practising in Canada today.

The sponsor of this bill, Senator Eggleton, told this chamber about Dr. Emily Stowe, the first woman to practise medicine in Canada. Dr. Stowe has earned her place in medical history, and it is fitting that this bill would mark her birthday. But we would be remiss if we did not take this time to recognize others who also broke important ground at a time when women seeking to enter the field were viewed with intense doubt and suspicion.

As a proud Montrealer and McGillian, I would like to share the story of Dr. Maude Abbott, an unwavering trailblazer with a devotion to science who paved the way for future generations of women in medicine. After graduating from McGill’s Faculty of Arts in 1890, she was barred from pursuing a degree in medicine because she was a woman. Undeterred, she studied at Bishop’s University and was granted her MD in 1894. She went on to open an independent clinic dedicated to serving women and children, where she conducted first-hand research on heart defects in newborn babies.

Dr. Abbott was eventually hired by McGill University to teach in the pathology department, where she published groundbreaking work on congenital heart disease. Her 1936 publication, Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease, laid the foundation for modern heart surgery. As curator of the McGill Medical Museum, she pioneered new methods of teaching pathology. Although she was world famous, Dr. Abbott was never promoted beyond the rank of assistant professor.

In 2018, Maude’s home province of Quebec became the first in Canada to have more women than men actually practising medicine. While women have made significant advancements in the field, female physicians continue to be paid less than their male counterparts and are less likely to obtain the most senior positions in hospitals and academia.

The gender balance that persists among medical leadership makes Maude’s achievements even more remarkable. Consider the fact that over 100 years after she was appointed to the McGill faculty, there are only two female deans of medicine out of 18 in Canada, and that, earlier this year, the Canadian Medical Association welcomed its very first female president.

There is more to be done to encourage more women like Maude to become leaders in the field of medicine. The same is true for new Canadians, many of whom struggle to find work in the medical field despite their international training.

A more diverse physician workforce is proven to benefit patient care, and we should be encouraged by our progress, but we must not forget that our overburdened and outdated health care system is desperate for reform of its own.

I am hopeful that celebrating National Physicians’ Day will be an opportunity to celebrate how far we’ve come, while reflecting on the challenges ahead. For this reason, honourable senators, I urge you to support Bill S-248 at second reading. Thank you.