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The doctor will see you now

Growing up in Montreal with a family physician mom and a general surgeon dad, Anne Zaharia got an inside look at two very different kinds of health care. Yet she still entered med school not knowing where she wanted to specialize. “When I got into clinical work, it narrowed down to a choice between internal medicine and family medicine. They’re both about providing frontline care, and that’s important to me,” says the 25-year-old, who is in her second year of residency at St. Mary’s Hospital Center, in Montreal, one of four teaching hospital centres affiliated with McGill.

In the end, Zaharia liked the versatility that comes with being a family doctor, and the need to really get to know patients. “We have to take everything into context–Who is this person? What’s going on in their lives? With family medicine, we’re looking at the whole person.”

Zaharia’s choice is gaining popularity. Over the last decade, the Faculty has stepped up efforts to encourage the specialty—and the number of McGill med students who go into family medicine has doubled. “McGill has long been a hotbed of basic science research,” says Dr. David Eidelman, who became Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in January 2012, “and that is always going to be very important. But as our population ages, chronic diseases proliferate and, in Quebec, more babies are born, there’s an increased need for quality frontline care and access to family doctors. We’ve always had very good family medicine people: Now it’s a priority.”

The past year continued initiatives to “orient the Faculty to meet the needs of the population that we are serving,” in the words of Eidelman. A big part of this re-orientation is an increased focus on family medicine. Created in response to community demand, the Integrated Clerkship in Gatineau is growing, as is the McGill residency program there, giving students extensive training (en français) in local hospitals while encouraging them to continue their careers in the region.

Looking ahead, the Faculty is getting ready to launch a new curriculum in 2013-2014, which will ensure every medical student is exposed to family medicine from their first year of studies. Equally important in the new curriculum is building in close collaboration among all of the Faculty’s health professionals, including nurses and physical, occupational and speech therapists.

Patient-related research is also a priority. McGill’s family medicine Master’s degree program trains current family physicians to research real-world patient care. When it comes to questions of care–In what situations might a nurse provide better care than a doctor? How can we help elderly patients stay out of the emergency room?–there aren’t yet hard and fast answers. “These questions are as critical as ones about the roles of this particular gene in that particular disease,” says Eidelman. “Both in research and clinical work, family medicine touches people’s lives in a very direct way.”