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An advocate for the north: Dr. Stephanie Young brings fresh perspective to SHA

Dr. Stephanie Young can still hear the call of the north.

She has spent her medical career serving the people who inhabit the mostly inhospitable lands of northern Saskatchewan, whether in her home town of La Ronge or flying in and out of remote communities for clinics.

It was with some trepidation, then, that she accepted a position with the newly formed Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), trading a life in the boreal forest for one in a boardroom.

Dr. Young is the Physician Executive, Integrated Northern Health with the SHA, joining four other physicians on the SHA executive leadership team who are working in a dyad relationship with an SHA vice-president.

“One of the things that drew me to this role is trying to make some positive change at that big picture level,” Dr. Young told the SMA. “I feel like I’m able to serve more patients, I just don’t spend as much time doing that direct hands-on patient care the way that I used to.

“By me being in this role I have the ability to have more of an effect on improving health care for the communities of the north.”

That connection to the north remains a cornerstone for Dr. Young. She moved to La Ronge from Ontario in 2007, working as a health promotion coordinator for two years before going to medical school. She and her husband Dr. Jeff Irvine, a son of longtime La Ronge physician Dr. James Irvine, went to medical school at Ross University in Dominica, West Indies, graduating in 2011.

“We’ve always had a passion for working in places that provide medicine in rural and remote contexts,” said Dr. Young. “We thought that going to the Caribbean and working in the Third World would provide us for a lot of skills that would be transferable to working in the north.”

As luck would have it, the couple were the first residents of the La Ronge family medicine residency program. Drs. Young and Irvine stayed in the community after their two-year residency was completed.

The training in Dominica paid off, Dr. Young notes, saying she learned such things as working in an environment with limited resources and little access to labs and scans, relying more on clinical skills than reading test results, and serving Indigenous people.

“We worked with the Indigenous population on the island when we were there and there was quite a remarkable similarity with northern Saskatchewan in terms of health-care outcomes and socioeconomics that led to some of those health-care disparities. Even though we were halfway across the world, it was almost like dealing with the same population.”

Dr. Young was content with her practice – where it was and what she was doing. With a newborn son she wasn’t looking for a change. However, she was encouraged to apply for the physician executive position with the SHA by some colleagues.

“I didn’t think that I would get the job. I put my name in the hat to show I was willing to help if needed, and I was very shocked and completely humbled by the fact that they did want me to be in that role,” she said.

“I really see my role as an advocate for the north. Being someone who knows what’s going on, knows some the jurisdictional complexities and just the reality of what it’s like to live and work in the north, I think having somebody at the executive leadership table who understands that is so vital. That’s not to say I was the only one who would be able to do that, but because of my history of living up here for 11 years, I at least have learned from that history and I feel like there needs to be an advocate for the north.”

Her territory is generally north of Saskatoon, not including the smaller communities around Saskatoon. Like the other physician executives on the SHA, she works .8 of the time for the authority, and .2 in clinical medicine. She does emergency services based out of La Ronge and will fly out to northern communities if she is needed. She misses the closer connections that she had with communities, her time spent flying over the lakes and forest delivering care to marginalized populations, just like she planned it back in her medical school days. But her new job doesn’t totally take that away, she notes.

“I was a little bit worried, with this being a full-time job just in the administrative role, but the .2 allows me to be connected with what’s going on in the front line and with the communities,” she said. “It gives me a little bit of a break. It gives me time to focus on what I love and what drew me to the profession, giving back to my community and still being part of the medical group here.

“Some of the big system changes take a little bit more time and are obviously very complex, so being able to get into the emerg and deliver a baby or deal with somebody who’s having a heart attack or just suturing somebody, it just reminds me of the importance of being a physician and a part of your community.”

While she describes the SHA job as “completely overwhelming,” she is thankful for the supportive physician group she has in La Ronge, which includes her husband Jeff, brother-in-law Dr. Dan Irvine, Dan’s wife Dr. Elliot Wilkinson, and father-in-law Dr. James Irvine. She also continues to volunteer in the community, organizing local triathlons and the judo club, and staying involved with the Boreal Outdoor Recreation Association. This helps her look after her own health, while using her new position as a platform to look after others.

“I’m completely humbled to be in this role. I’m going to do my best to try to improve the system, to provide better access, better services to the communities in the Integrated Northern Area.”

 

Photos courtesy of Dr. Stephanie Young. Top to bottom: Arriving at a fly-out clinic; husband Dr. Jeff Irvine and Dr. Young during medical school at a travelling clinic that served the Indigenous population on the island of Dominica; Dr. Young, holding a fishhook she removed from a patient, stands in front of the fishhook 'trophy board' where patients can place their hooks after they have been removed in the La Ronge emergency; (left to right) Dr. Dan Irvine, Dr. James Irvine, Dr. Young, Dr. Elliot Wilkinson, and Dr. Jeff Irvine, missing is James' wife Trudy Connor, who was taking the photo.

 

This is the sixth and final instalment  in a series of stories by the SMA on physicians who have taken leadership positions within the Saskatchewan Health Authority. For previous stories:

Click here to see: Dr. Susan Shaw brings clinical experience to the SHA boardroom

Click here to see: Dr. Kevin Wasko combines medical training, policy knowledge in new SHA position

Click here to see: Dr. Paul Babyn wears many hats in new SHA position

Click here to see: Dr. Mark Wahba returns from abroad to executive post with new SHA

Click here to see: ‘I’m an optimist. I believe the glass is half full’: Dr. Phillip Fourie, SHA deputy chief medical officer

 

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