From individual passion to systemic change

Posted on Monday, February 8, 2021

Photo of Dr. Sharon Whiting, Dr. Catherine Tsilfidis, Dr. Elizabeth Muggah and Dr. Anne Byszewski

By Michelle Read

Within a week of arriving at CHEO for her pediatric residency, Dr. Sharon Whiting was confronted with a situation that would define her thoughts about who she was as a Black person, her role in Canada as a physician and the effect of assumptions on people.

She was asked to sign off an evaluation after being in contact with the staff physician for 30 minutes of that week. He assumed her basic science skills were lacking based on “the fact she was a foreign trainee.”

“Oh, no, no—I’m not signing off on that,” she told him, shaking her head.

Dr. Whiting had learned a hard lesson about pre-judgement and pervasive attitudes. The episode set in motion her commitment to address such issues and her determination to change the culture.

Culture change through mentorship

A native of Jamaica, Dr. Whiting earned her MD at the University of the West Indies. She made her way to the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine for her residency, quickly rising to chief resident. She had begun her path in pediatric neurology, but soon discovered other passions along the way.

As a pediatric neurologist she was able to observe first-hand the impact of pre-judgement on other trainees and the need to change the culture at the hospital. Later, in her roles as chief of staff at CHEO and head of the Division of Neurology, mentorship of colleagues, residents and students was her main vehicle to address the issues.

“In mentoring my international colleagues in standing up for themselves, I became very passionate about the rights of people,” she says.

Creating an environment of opportunity and respect

Dr. Whiting ultimately grasped the reins of one of the more robust portfolios of the Faculty of Medicine. As the vice-dean of Faculty Affairs, she is responsible for the mandates of wellness, professionalism, and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI)—all of which ensure opportunities for professional development.

“In my role of vice-dean, faculty, students and residents need to feel respected and included, and that they have an opportunity to progress and to make a difference,” she says, going on to explain her strong belief that when people join an organization, the failure of the expectations of the two parties to meet can derail careers.

Dr. Whiting is proud of the progress that Faculty Affairs has made in recent years under both her predecessor Dr. Rama Nair, and now her own leadership. She points, for example, to the strong promotions and appointments process:

“We have excellent relationships with all of our partner hospitals, and 92 percent of the people who apply for promotion get promoted,” she says, pointing to 2020’s lengthy roster.

Photo of Dr. Michelle Chiu, Dr. Gregory Bryson and Dr. Sharon Whiting at a Professorial Promotions Ceremony.

More faculty than ever before are being promoted, thanks to the work of Dr. Whiting and her Faculty Affairs team in reviewing and revising the promotions and appointment process. Here, Dr. Whiting (right) and Dr. Gregory Bryson, vice-chair of research in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine (centre) pose with Dr. Michelle Chiu, promoted to the rank of associate professor in the Department in a 2018 ceremony.

Leading philosophy change for wellness and EDI

Under the mandate of Faculty Affairs, the Faculty of Medicine is working with its affiliated hospitals in fostering education, advocacy and research in the area of wellness.  As well, Dr. Whiting co-chairs CHEO’s new EDI task force.

Meanwhile, Dr. Whiting carefully tends to her own wellness. She maintains contact with her alumni colleagues from the University of the West Indies, and is a yoga enthusiast and an avid reader—currently, she is mid-way thorough Barack Obama’s 750-page autobiography.

“In describing his impossible odyssey from a young man searching for identity to the leader of the free world, his experience resonated deeply,” she says.

Dr. Whiting admits nothing happens overnight, but explains that the Faculty’s Executive Leadership Team agrees it is important to work toward enduring change in culture.

“If you want to make change, you have to be at the table where change is being discussed,” she says. “It takes time, but equity means access to opportunity for all.”


Main Photo: Dr. Sharon Whiting poses with her leadership colleagues from the Office of Faculty Affairs. L-R: Dr. Sharon Whiting, vice-dean, Faculty Affairs; Dr. Catherine Tsilfidis, assistant dean, Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; Dr. Elizabeth Muggah, assistant dean, Faculty Wellness Program; Dr. Anne Byszewski, director, Office of Professionalism.

Consider supporting the University of Ottawa.

The Black Leaders in Medicine Scholarship has been established by the Faculty of Medicine’s Undergraduate Medical Education Program in collaboration with the Black Medical Students Association (BMSA) of the University of Ottawa to award a scholarship to a student from a Black community who is enrolled in the first year of the MD program at the University of Ottawa.


No longer in the shadows, conversations about EDI are full of hope

The openness with which diversity is discussed, as well as the strategic planning related to the area, makes it easier to address, Dr. Whiting notes. She recognizes that conversations about Black issues are not always comfortable at the Faculty of Medicine, but feels gratified that during her time as vice-dean, such issues are being tackled.

“I can actually lead the initiative from a systemic organizational level rather than working at an individual level,” she says. “That’s the biggest change I’ve seen when it comes to EDI.”

This openness has led to a greater access to not only resources, but to people who view the matter as important. EDI is recognized as an important component of the five-year strategic plan .

“It has to be beyond me—when I leave the role of vice-dean, it has to still be important,” she says. “I am pleased Dean Bernard Jasmin is very supportive of EDI and committed to enduring change at the Faculty.”

Support at the leadership level relieves the pressure on racialized students who want to see change at the Faculty. Working with the Black Medical Students Association of Ottawa, the Faculty is committed to addressing issues including curriculum reform and developing a new application process to increase numbers of Black students.

“We’ve also appointed a Black physician whose mandate is to examine and reform our curriculum in terms of how people of colour are represented in the medical cases that learners encounter,” says Dr. Whiting.

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