Our Commitment to Creating a Culture of Caring and Inclusion: Introducing the Culture & Inclusion Leadership Team

Apr 5, 2021
Dr. Gillian Hawker

A year later, and here we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know how exhausted you are and hope you can keep it together a little longer till this is over! You are my heroes.

Given all this, we have decided not to send the scheduled faculty survey out to you — we will do so when things have settled, just as we have postponed nominations for this year’s DoM awards. In the meantime, I want you to know how grateful we are for all you are doing and what an honour it continues to be to serve as Chair of this magnificent department.  

Although we won’t be collecting data this year, prior faculty surveys conducted in 2015, 2017 and 2019, have underscored the need for a continued focus on the environment in which we work. COVID has magnified this. Physician wellness has always been a priority, but COVID has amplified the need. Equity, diversity and inclusion have been a departmental priority from the start, but COVID has heightened the need to address disparities and systematic biases. Mentorship has always been fundamental to academic success and professional fulfillment and now, perhaps more than ever, the guidance and support from peers is much needed — that sense of connection. And this includes, importantly, the Baby Boomers amongst us who are edging closer to retirement and need our support in making that difficult transition. Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for a culture of caring and inclusion in academic medicine. With the guidance of Vice-Chair Culture & Inclusion, Dr. Lisa Richardson, we have assembled an incredible team of faculty members to lead this work.

In this Chair’s Column, I am delighted to introduce this team. Rather than providing their bios, each was asked to tell us what drew them to this work and why this work matters to the department.

Here is what they had to say:


Simron Singh: Wellness

Simron Singh


For the past few years, I have been working with Cancer Care Ontario (now Ontario Health) to improve the patient experience for cancer patients throughout Ontario. It has been quite a journey with many discussions centred on what the components of a good patient experience are, and how can we ensure we provide person-centered care. As we explored this work, it became apparent to me how closely aligned the clinician and patient experiences are. We cannot provide good patient care if we are over-extended, burnt out or unable to work efficiently in a system. If we are not satisfied in our roles as care providers and faculty – we can’t provide the care we all want to, nor achieve the academic goals we have set for ourselves.

Initially I was quite skeptical of all the wellness talk that was emerging. I perceived it to be asking me to be “tougher,” “do more with less,” or “adapt to the system.” If I felt overwhelmed or overtaxed I felt guilty – that I wasn’t working hard enough, wasn’t doing enough or needed to be “stronger.” After my wife and I started our family, I had more discussions with my peers about work/life balance and being present at work and at home to my two young sons. I was surprised to learn that many of my colleagues were struggling with these same issues and sentiments. This led me to do a study examining burnout rates among cancer physicians in the province and I was astonished to find that over 70% of my colleagues met the standard definition for burnout. This is not sustainable.

I am now a firm believer that wellness is about system change. We need a system that allows us to work to our full capacity and ensure our fulfillment in order to thrive as faculty. This isn’t an easy task as there are a lot of barriers and few levers. I do strongly feel, however, that this is the time to start addressing these issues. COVID has highlighted how amazing our faculty members and learners are as we stepped up in so many different ways. COVID has also highlighted the gaps in the system and accelerated the conversation about physician wellness. I am excited to be part of the push from the DoM to improve the wellness of us all. 

Umberin Najeeb: Equity

Umberin Najeeb

As a Pakistani-born, Canadian Muslim woman, I have gone through the process of transition and integration into general Canadian culture and Canadian academia. This has provided me with a unique perspective and affected me at both personal (wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend) and professional (clinician, teacher, educator, leader) levels. Situating myself has helped me appreciate the diversity among our learners, colleagues, and patients. Embracing the diversity of our learners and peers can also be a first step towards enhancing a sense of inclusiveness and promoting equity within our learning environments, the majority of which are also our patient-care environments. This is particularly relevant, and indeed necessary, in the context of current geopolitical changes and challenges that affect all of us in various ways. In my role as Department of Medicine Faculty Lead, Equity, I will work in a collaborative, iterative manner to refine our thinking and develop processes for enhancing understanding across the department around ideas such as equity, diversity, inclusiveness, and intersectionality in health care and academic environments. I will also contribute to our departmental priority of ensuring that our learners and faculty are more representative of the populations we serve.

Eric Cohen: Late Career Transition

Eric Cohen

For three decades, my professional identity and fulfillment — and much of my income  were closely tied to the cardiac cath lab.  But, my interests were shifting, and I was tired of the high acuity and the after-hours work. I wasn’t ready to retire, but I knew the clock was ticking and I wanted the remainder of my career to be meaningful and satisfying.

The start of an academic medical career is planned and structured, but the later phases are not. This can be comforting: I have some flexibility. Or disconcerting: I don’t have a roadmap to guide me. The decisions we make around career transition impact our personal well-being, the care our patients receive, and the renewal of the organizations we work in.

Having confronted some of these issues personally, I envision a transition toward, and through, retirement as a fundamental and rewarding part of the career arc. I feel energized and honoured to join the Culture and Inclusion portfolio and look forward to working with the department and its members to develop a more coherent approach to later career transition that embodies wellness, quality of care, and innovation and renewal.

Catherine Yu: Mentorship

Catherine Yu

I am pleased to serve the department as the mentorship lead for the Culture and Inclusion portfolio. Having experienced first-hand the benefits of amazing mentorship, I’d like to feed it forward to others at the departmental level.

My journey with mentorship began as a PGY-5, when suddenly I was thrust into this bewildering world of hospital chiefs, division directors, and research heads at multiple sites across the country. I was incredibly fortunate to have the guiding hands of my mentors and sponsors to help navigate the complexities of academic medicine, and then to help me fine tune my career, and ultimately, support me in making the difference that I want to make in the world. I definitely would not be the person I am today without them! In turn, I’ve had the heart-swelling pride to see my own mentees achieve their dreams, and I’m humbled to have been a part of their journeys as well.

My goal for our incredible department is to share this wealth so that all of us can reap the benefits of both being a mentee and a mentor!

Mireille Norris: Black and Indigenous Resident Application and Mentorship

Mireille Norris

I arrived in Toronto at the age of 33. I trained in French and was a new mother. In those days, mentorship programs hadn’t been established in the DoM. I was assigned various mentors, but struggled to walk the paths that were expected of me. Today there are many more options for trainees beyond epidemiology and medical education, such as quality improvement and medical humanities. Toronto is also more diverse now and new ways to mentor under-represented physicians are offered, such as near peer mentorship and group mentorship.

I feel particularly suited for this new role now that I am in the later part of my career. When I see the wide diversity of CaRMS applicants during the interview process and witness their interest in my role, I appreciate that the Department of Medicine correctly identified the need for special mentorship for Black and Indigenous trainees. The experience of oppression and structural racism is common to both groups and trans-generational trauma is something I can relate to. I can appreciate its impact on the educational experience of under-represented physicians who I trust will see in me someone who can be a guide in their journey to becoming the best physician they can be. The Department of Medicine is among the highest rated for clinical medicine in the world and its faculty should reflect the diversity of the rich fabric of the country. COVID-19 has highlighted how Black, Indigenous and people of colour have been disproportionally affected: it matters that the DoM is making a commitment to excellence through equity by addressing the need of this group.

I am thrilled to welcome Simron, Umberin, Eric, Catherine and Mireille to the department’s leadership team! They are already busy getting the lay of the land and identifying department members interested in contributing to this work. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to dom.cultureandinclusion@utoronto.ca  if you’d like to learn more or get involved.