The women-led medical team tackling Ottawa’s COVID-19 hospitalizations

For nearly two years, Ottawa’s health-care workers have been tending to those worst affected by COVID-19.

“Right from the get go, we really felt like this was our calling. These patients sort of belong to us and so, as a group, we really took that on,” Dr. Isabelle Desjardins, General Internal Medicine Site Chief for The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) General Campus said.

As of Wednesday, there are 137 COVID-19 positive patients at the Ottawa Hospital but the majority are not in the intensive care unit; instead the General Internal Medicine unit, a team led entirely by women, cares for most.

“Our chief of staff is a woman, our senior medical officer is a woman, all of this sort of fairly recently and I think that sort of highlights the change that is slowly coming about within medicine,” Dr. Desjardins said.

The situation is not unheard of, but is still relatively rare in medicine.

At The Ottawa Hospital 80 per cent of the executives on the administrative side are women but there is a stark difference when it comes to the clinical leadership.

Just one woman is a department head, an eight per cent representation, and only 18 per cent of division leads are female.

“I think I’ve always been raised with this attitude of it doesn’t matter who you are you can do whatever you want to do,” Dr. Halman said.

Caring for the latest wave of patients is quickly proving arduous and, like most, these doctors are ready for reprieve.

“I think the hardest part is feeling like you’re giving 120 per cent all the time and that it’s not enough. You want to do better and you would want to do more but you just don’t have it. I think that feeling is very, very difficult to accept,” Dr. Samantha Halman, a internal medicine specialist and the Training Program Director for General Internal Medicine at The Ottawa Hospital said.

Dr. Krista Wooler is one of the Division Leads. After taking charge of General Internal Medicine this summer, Dr. Wooler is hopeful her division can be a model for others.

“It’s hard to believe that only 18 per cent of the division heads at TOH are women, it seems that it should be more than that given how many women are in medicine right now but I think it is changing,” Dr. Wooler said.

“I think being that visible face and stepping up when somebody offers you a job like this is the first step to be honest with you,” she continued.

In a statement, the Ottawa Hospital said, “The Ottawa Hospital is constantly looking for ways to improve patient care, outcomes and performance. One key element to this success is encouraging women to take on more leadership positions.”

“I didn’t really ever encounter these barriers or these walls by gender and I think that that is very fortunate, it’s rare in our field and we’re just really lucky to be in this very, very positive culture and positive environment,” Dr. Halman said.

The women say they’re doing their best to foster and encouraging environment for others.

“The best way to shift culture is to actually role model it. I think it’s easy to speak about diversity and equity but until people actually put pen to paper and demonstrate that it is actually being implemented it’s almost impossible,” Dr. Halman said. 

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