A Road Less Travelled

a road less travelled:

UBC takes medical education to new places

In 2000, healthcare was making headlines across the nation: Canada was facing a severe shortage of physicians.

In B.C.’s north, the sparse, yet essential network of hospitals and clinics throughout the region was confronting critical shortages of physicians and health professionals, resulting in emergency-room closures and limited services. In other regions of the province, the shortage was only expected to worsen in the years ahead, with many doctors across B.C. looking to retire within the decade.

The challenges were further compounded by the fact that for the last two decades at least, the number of physicians in training had not kept pace with B.C.’s growing population. It was clear that UBC would need to train more doctors and other medical professionals and encourage them to practice in places where they were needed most—rural and underserved communities.

But without a fresh approach, there was little hope for change.

Discussions got underway between UBC and university partners the University of Northern British Columbia and the University of Victoria, the provincial government and B.C.’s six health authorities.

Out of these talks, a new idea emerged: collectively develop an ambitious plan for expanding and distributing medical education across the province.

The result: the establishment of UBC’s distributed MD program and what is an innovative approach to training physicians in communities outside the city centres and so becoming Canada’s first model of distributed medical education.

But how could UBC encourage doctors to practise in the distant communities where they are most needed?

For the distributed model of education to work, the Faculty of Medicine recognized that it would not only need to train medical students in different regions of the province, it would also need to build a more diverse student base, one that was truly representative of the rich diversity of B.C.’s communities—particularly among Aboriginal and rural communities, areas from which medical-student candidates have been traditionally underrepresented.

Today, 10 years into the distribution, a number of ground-breaking initiatives are drawing in students from different backgrounds and regions of the province, helping to build a medical community more emblematic of the people that live in B.C. now and in the years ahead.

Aboriginal Initiatives:

Historically, Aboriginal students have been dramatically underrepresented in post-secondary education, particularly in the health sciences. In 2000, the situation at UBC was no different—few, if any, Aboriginal students were entering and graduating from medicine.

In an effort to produce Aboriginal doctors, the Faculty of Medicine turned its attention to admissions and in 2001, it established a new initiative: the Aboriginal MD Admissions program, which provides prospective students with a wide range of support channels throughout the pre-admissions and admissions stage—everything from counselling and workshops through to peer-to-peer mentorship opportunities with current Aboriginal MD students.

But as the initiative began to draw more Aboriginal students into the MD program, faculty began noticing a new problem: a deep disconnect existed between K-12 education and post-secondary studies amongst many Aboriginal youth. In urban and rural settings alike, the Aboriginal dropout rates were well above the national average.

Dr. Sandra Jarvis-Selinger, assistant dean in the Faculty of Medicine, and James Andrew, Aboriginal student initiatives coordinator, couldn’t ignore the problem. Recognizing that early outreach was the key to helping close the gap and ensuring a successful transition into post-secondary school, Jarvis-Selinger and Andrew, in partnership with a team of faculty and staff at UBC’s eHealth Strategy Office, looked at ways they could engage with Aboriginal youth across the province.

In 2009, Aboriginal eMentoring BC was created. The online mentoring program connects B.C.’s Aboriginal youth with mentors in medical and health professional programs at UBC and other post-secondary institutions.


One of my favourite quotes from a student who started the program was that eMentoring meant she ‘could become the person’ she always dreamed she could be. It continues to give me goose bumps when I think about it and that’s the kind of engagement we’re looking for. We are really trying to give students the opportunity to just explore what they want to do after graduation. Being able to give them the potential to choose is just as important, I think, as what choice they’re making.”

— Dr. Sandra Jarvis-Selinger

Aboriginal students from Surrey School District are just some of the youth benefiting from the program. Through online mentorship with university students, these youth are being exposed to a wealth of new ideas and career opportunities and are beginning to see just how much they can achieve by staying in school and keeping their doors open.

Aboriginal Initiatives: Surrey School Visit

In spring 2014, eMentoring BC invited more than 30 Aboriginal students from Surrey School District to UBC’s campus to experience a ‘day-in-the-life’ of a university student. For many, it was the first time they had set foot on campus.

Over the course of the day, students met with Aboriginal educators and current students at UBC’s First Nations Longhouse. They also visited the Michael Smith Laboratories, where David Ng, director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory, walked them through a series of DNA experiments.

  • Surrey school visit image
  • Surrey school visit image
  • Surrey school visit image
  • Surrey school visit image

Carrie Mogollon, an Aboriginal youth care worker with the Surrey School District, says the visit has made a lasting impression on the students.

Aboriginal Initiatives: Bella Bella

The effects of the Aboriginal eMentoring program are being felt far beyond city limits—they’re reaching remote communities as far north as Bella Bella, home to the Heiltsuk First Nation, on the central coast of B.C.

Jan Gladish is the principal of the local school, which sees nearly 200 students from kindergarten through to Grade 12 pass through its doors each year. Gladish has only recently returned to Bella Bella after spending years working in the Surrey School District. Having seen the effect that the eMentoring program was having on students of Surrey, she was keen to bring the program to youth in her hometown of Bella Bella.

But she faced some difficulty bringing the program online. In 2013, a fire swept through the community-gathering place, destroying the town’s only grocery and liquor store, post office, library and café. As rebuilding got underway, the community was hit again: school property and equipment were vandalized just days before the school year was to begin. The damage was extensive; everything from telephones, laptops, keyboards, smart boards, windows and library books would have to be replaced. The eMentoring program was put on hold while the community rallied together to address the aftermath of those events.

In early 2014, Nahannee Schuitemaker and Lisa Ritland, both graduates of UBC and ambassadors with Aboriginal eMentoring BC, travelled from Vancouver to Bella Bella to meet with Gladish and get the program up and running again.

Their trip was much more than an opportunity to connect with Bella Bella students about the mentorship program. It was also the chance to give back to the community that had lost so much.

Using funds from a recent Ashoka Changemakers award, the Aboriginal eMentoring team purchased six laptops to donate to the school. It was a small gesture but it brought immense benefits to students of the community, who are now able to log on and explore education and career opportunities, set goals and plan for their future. All the while, these students are gaining support and building online ties with university mentors based miles away from the shores of Bella Bella.

For Schuitemaker, who is of mixed heritage and identifies strongly with her Mohawk roots, the trip to Bella Bella offered a glimpse into just how important an online program such as eMentoring BC can be for Aboriginal youth and communities removed from city centres and large research institutions such as UBC.

As the school’s principal, Gladish says eMentoring is not just about connecting youth in Bella Bella with university mentors who can help open their world to different career opportunities, it’s also about giving them hope for the future.

Healthcare Travelling Roadshow

In rural and remote regions of B.C. where limited resources and vast distances magnify the complexities of healthcare delivery, the need for doctors is great.

In an effort to provide a sustainable, long-term solution to medical-professional shortages in these communities, faculty began to look at how to attract students from rural backgrounds–individuals who are not only familiar with and often better equipped to face the unique healthcare challenges of remote care, but who are also more likely to return to their hometowns to train and practise after graduation.

Similar to Aboriginal students, students from rural and remote regions of B.C. have traditionally been underrepresented in medicine.

Dr. Sean Maurice, a senior lab instructor with the Northern Medical Program, has been at the forefront of turning this around. In 2009, he pioneered a grassroots initiative: the Healthcare Travelling Roadshow, which was established by the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) to address rural healthcare-workforce shortages in B.C.’s northern communities.

Over the past several years, Maurice and a multidisciplinary group of healthcare students from UNBC, UBC, and the College of New Caledonia (CNC), have travelled to rural communities across the province. Together, they showcase a wide range of medical and healthcare career options to elementary and high-school students.

The Healthcare Travelling Roadshow has become an important opportunity for children and youth in rural communities to have some fun, such as learning how to read an X-ray or intubate a dummy. It’s also an opportunity for these students to speak directly with university role models and learn more about medical and health professional programs open to them in the years ahead.

Gerry Thiessen is the mayor of the District of Vanderhoof, one of the communities visited by the Roadshow in 2013. He is excited to see students learning about the incredible range of career options open to them in the healthcare sector.


What’s neat is when other students come in and say ‘Hey, there’s a world of opportunity out there.’ The students here are learning that there’s much more to the medical profession, much more to health care than a doctor or nurse. So when you see people who are occupational therapists, when you see lab technicians–those kinds of professionals come in and talking to them, students are saying ‘Hey, I’m interested in that.’ My hope is that maybe two, maybe three percent of those students will say ‘Hey, that’s something that I’d like to do’, and we see them at the university, be part of the north, and stay in our community and that’s really exciting for us.”

— Mayor Gerry Thiessen, District of Vanderhoof

  • Rural healthcare image
  • Rural healthcare image
  • Rural healthcare image
  • Rural healthcare image

The Roadshow has also become much more than an opportunity to expose rural youth to education and career opportunities in the healthcare sector. It also offers university students—whether he or she is a nursing student from UNBC, a radiology student at CNC, or a physical therapy student with UBC–the opportunity to work as part of an interdisciplinary team of medical and health professionals and get a glimpse into what life, and establishing a practice, would be like in rural areas of B.C.

Kaley Strachan, a UBC Master of Physical Therapy student, says that participating in the 2013 Roadshow was a major turning point. Inspired by one of the communities she visited as part of the Roadshow, Strachan will be returning to the community of Vanderhoof to set up permanent shop as a physical therapist.


Participating as a member of the 2013 Healthcare Travelling Roadshow offered greater experiences and opportunities than I could have imagined. While my plan was to find employment as a physiotherapist in a northern or rural setting after graduation, my involvement in this event solidified this, and even planted the seed that grew into an accepted job offer in Vanderhoof!

I enjoyed meeting and working with fellow students from the varied healthcare disciplines as we shared our similarities, differences and goals with each other, and to the students in the communities. It was a thrill to engage the children in our presentations while offering information that they could use to direct their career and personal choices.

The volunteers and community leaders offered such a warm welcoming as they shared their knowledge, passion and plans for healthcare, recreation, and other community developments. Spending time exploring what the different areas had to offer while networking with community leaders who clearly love where they live was one of the major factors that drew me back to this region. I look forward to beginning my professional life in Vanderhoof, while continuing to share my passion and skills to other students, colleagues and community members.”

— Kaley Strachan, Student, UBC Master of Physical Therapy

Now celebrating its 10th year, UBC’s distributed MD program is the fifth largest medical program in North America.

Spanning four geographically distinct sites—the Northern Medical Program at UNBC in Prince George, the Island Medical Program at the University of Victoria, the Southern Medical Program at UBCO in Kelowna and the Vancouver-Fraser Program at UBC in Vancouver—the MD program has transformed medical education in B.C., increasing the number of doctors and placing trainees in communities where physicians are needed most. Each year, the MD undergraduate program accepts 288 students, up from 128 in 2003, making it the third largest in Canada.

Today, as a result of initiatives such as the Healthcare Travelling Roadshow and the Faculty of Medicine’s Aboriginal MD Admissions and eMentoring program, UBC admits one of the most diversified medical classes in Canada.

In fact, UBC is training more Aboriginal physicians than ever before. In spring 2015 the Aboriginal MD Admissions program will meet its original goal of graduating 50 Aboriginal MDs by 2020 or what is five years ahead of schedule.The program has also become a model for other Canadian faculties of medicine.

Through early engagement, Aboriginal eMentoring BC is fostering academic success, building confidence among Aboriginal youth across the province and establishing strong partnerships with Aboriginal communities and school districts. Between 2011 and 2014, nearly 200 mentees took part in the program and interest is growing. The program has also attracted university mentors from a broad range of disciplines such as human kinetics, fine arts, education and social work. With this expansion, Aboriginal youth are gaining exposure to education and career opportunities outside of medicine and the health sciences alone.

When it comes to attracting medical students from diverse regions of the province, the Faculty of Medicine is seeing a real mix. In a 2013 survey of students entering the MD program, 14 percent identified themselves as being from a rural or remote region. In the years ahead, early engagement with youth in rural and remote regions of B.C. will play an important role in helping to deepen and diversify the medical pool. Initiatives such as the Healthcare Travelling Roadshow are already having a positive effect on communities far removed from urban centres and also helping to attract medical and health profession students such as Strachan, to practise in this province’s rural regions.

Although B.C. still faces doctor shortages, we’re not only beginning to witness an increase in the number of doctors and health professionals, we’re seeing the rich diversity of B.C.’s communities—especially Aboriginal and rural communities—being reflected in the larger medical community. There is still a long way to go but through new thinking on admissions and distributed education initiatives, UBC’s Faculty of Medicine is bridging boundaries and building hope for the future.