Dr. David Tobin brings wellness to the forefront of medical education

Posted on Monday, February 10, 2020

A man leaning against a railing in front of a window.

“Most learners who fail do so not because of their lack of medical knowledge, but because of their inability to cope. It is very difficult to learn and absorb information when you are depressed or under terrific stress.”

-Dr. David Tobin, assistant professor, Department of Family Medicine

Michelle Read
Staff writer

Dr. David Tobin regularly sits down with his medical trainees. "Have you made any friends? Are there people you can turn to when you are in need?" he might ask. "Can I help in any way?"

Tobin firmly believes wellness must be fostered from day one of medical training. Gauging how medical learners are managing during their training is an essential part of that process.

“Most learners who fail do so not because of their lack of medical knowledge, but because of their inability to cope,” says Tobin. “It is very difficult to learn and absorb information when you are depressed or under terrific stress.”

At the time of Tobin’s own training over 30 years ago, people believed being a good doctor was only about being an expert in medicine. Since then, he has seen many happy, intelligent doctors become cold, exhausted and angry, suffering broken marriages and leaving medicine early.

The reason? Dr. Tobin insists it lies in their training. “It is time we changed the philosophy of how we teach our medical trainees,” says the assistant professor In the Department of Family Medicine.

Tobin has championed numerous initiatives to help learners feel supported and meet the challenges of medical training.

As a family physician at the Greenboro Family Medicine Centre, Tobin not only teaches medicine to residents and MD students, but also mentors them with their own resiliency and wellness.

Five years ago, Dr. Tobin headed the creation of a volunteer committee in Wellness and Resiliency at the Department of Family Medicine. One of the initiatives, OttawaResiliency.org, provides tips, resources and coping strategies to help learners succeed – not only within the postgraduate medical education program, but beyond.

“Wellness doesn’t end at graduation,” he says. “Life doesn’t get easier, so we impart skills they can apply throughout their career and hopefully share as supervisors.”

As Director of Academic Day in the Department of Family Medicine, Tobin organizes a monthly gathering for residents and MD students. A typical day includes lectures and workshops, but the occasional one sees trainees venture off-site for morning talks and an afternoon of sports, art and yoga.

“Even though medicine can be complex and serious, there is still room for fun and laughter,” says Tobin. “I love to make my students laugh to lighten the moment and help them enjoy their learning experience.”

Medical students of today are extremely intelligent, Tobin says, and have spent many years building up their résumés. But an impressive CV doesn’t mean a good baseline of wellness and resiliency. It’s difficult to go through four years as an MD student, followed by two to five as a resident. And for many of them, it is their first time dealing with criticism and failure.

“If I had to pick one quality in a medical student, it would be resiliency,” says Tobin, who for three years sat on the medical admissions committee. “Medical schools are becoming more progressive, looking at not only marks but life experiences that speak to a student’s life skills.”

The Department of Family Medicine is considering creating a funded position to gauge and promote wellness among its learners – and to prevent them from ending up ill and in need of the Student Affairs or the Wellness Office.

The Undergraduate Medical Education Program has consulted with Tobin on a similar role, dedicated to monitoring students’ wellness and reducing referrals. “The best prevention is for our learners to know that there is someone they can turn to and rely on at all times."

Although far from ingrained in medical education, says Tobin, wellness is working its way into patient care. He implemented “narrative medicine” into his practice long ago: not only listening to a patient’s symptoms, but to what is going on in their lives. “It paints a complete picture of their health,” says Tobin. It may take more time, but patients are happy to be treated with compassion and it saves money in the long run.

Dr. Tobin continues to be a leader in supporting the Faculty’s learners, and mentoring happy, healthy doctors. “If I were the minister of health I’d say, if the doctors are healthy, we’ll ultimately have a healthier population, which eventually will cost the system less.”

“Caring for patients starts with caring for our doctors,” he says, “and training those doctors means nurturing their wellness".


Photo credits: Kate Jaimet

A summary of counselling and wellness supports can be found below:

Medical students can contact the Student Affairs Office by phone at 613-562-5800 x 8136 or by email at medsao@uottawa.ca to connect with counsellors and other resources.  

Residents, graduate students and faculty can contact the Faculty Wellness Program by phone at 613-562-5800 x 8507 or by email at wellness@uottawa.ca. Residents can access the PARO support line available 24/7 at 1-866-Help-Doc.

International students who have questions can contact the University’s International Office (uointl@uOttawa.ca) and are also reminded that services, such as counselling, are available should they need any assistance.

Other recommended supports include:

  • your family physician
  • the OMA Physician Health Program (1-800-851-6606)
  • your Employee and Family Assistance Program
  • the Mental Health Crisis lines available 24/7 at 613-722-6914 (in Ottawa) and 1-866-996-0991 (outside Ottawa) Tele-aide Outaouais 1-800-567-9699



A bird’s eye view of a man leaning against a railing in front of a window.

Dr. David Tobin has seen many happy, intelligent doctors leave medicine early. He insists the reason lies in their training.


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