uOttawa MD alumna creates fund to support the dreams of future learners

Posted on Monday, March 22, 2021

uOttawa MD 1980

“Influencing health policy is where I saw an opportunity to broaden my reach.” — Dr. Denise Werker (MD 1980)

By Chonglu Huang

uOttawa alumna Dr. Denise Werker (MD 1980) has devoted most of her career to public health and preventive medicine—an area of practice that she gravitated towards after several years of clinical work—driven by her passion to do more for her patients.

“In order to have a greater impact on the health of my patients, I wanted to not only treat diseases, but to prevent them,” said Dr. Werker, a veteran public health advisor to Canadian governments and the World Health Organization (WHO). “Influencing health policy is where I saw an opportunity to broaden my reach.”

From her humble medical school beginnings in the late 1970s to a dynamic and international career advising global responses to disease outbreaks such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and avian flu, Dr. Werker has made her mark as a physician.

A 2020 winner of uOttawa Faculty of Medicine’s Alumni Awards of Distinction for Exceptional Leadership, Dr. Werker is currently a member of the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the COVID-19 pandemic, and she is assisting the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health with its COVID-19 response.

In addition, she is an associate professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine and served as the province’s Deputy Chief Medical Health Officer at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health.

“Certainly, this pandemic has shone a light on the importance of public health practitioners,” said Dr. Werker. “We continue to be challenged in Canada to create a stronger and better-coordinated federated health system. The current challenges that we face with COVID-19 require not only a health system response, but an interdisciplinary response from all areas of government and society.”

Now, more than ever, medical students need to understand health systems from a collaborative, international and cross-cultural perspective—a career experience that Dr. Werker began when she first left Toronto for medical school at the University of Ottawa.

Initially she wanted to study medicine at the University of Toronto where she completed her undergraduate degree, but in hindsight, she said, “Escaping Toronto and coming to Ottawa was the best thing that could have happened.”

Being in Ottawa opened up different doors for Dr. Werker. In good humour, she recalled being an introverted student who didn’t go to many parties but did find time to take up modern dance lessons and jogging along the canal. She also wanted to learn to speak French and took a French immersion elective over one summer.

“For six weeks, I lived immersed in the French language in Saguenay, Quebec, “ Dr. Werker recalled fondly. “I really enjoyed the bilingual influence that the University of Ottawa and living in Ottawa offered.”

“There was also great camaraderie amongst the female medical students, who at the time made up about 25% of the MD class,” she added.

One of the most pivotal experiences she had was meeting a group of medical residents from British Columbia who had come to the University of Ottawa for their training. Working alongside them inspired Dr. Werker to go to Vancouver, B.C. to do an elective during her fourth-year.

There, she fell in love with the west coast, was accepted into a rotating internship and went on to begin her clinical practice doing locums as a general practitioner in rural British Columbia and eventually joined a small group practice in Richmond B.C.

“Working as a physician out West, the smaller cities and towns were very much hands-on and less hierarchical,” described Dr. Werker.  “I learned enormously about the determinants of health from practicing in a variety of settings.”

During these early years of her clinical practice Dr. Werker began to gravitate towards health policy and eventually decided to complete a five-year medical residency in public health and preventive medicine from the University of British Columbia.

Prior to moving to Saskatchewan, Dr. Werker held positions in Health Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada, Department of National Defence, as well as the WHO in Geneva.  She participated in international responses to disease outbreaks in Angola, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Uganda and provided technical support to many other national and international outbreak investigations.

As devoted to her community as she is to medicine, Dr. Werker has created a legacy gift for her alma mater, the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, specifically to help fund medical students and residents studying public health with a focus on vulnerable populations in Canada and abroad.

“Doctors end up being very privileged members of society and have the opportunity to give back, not just in terms of the work they do, but also financially,” explained Dr. Werker. “It was important to me to consider my legacy and give back to the community that shaped my career beginnings.”

Through an endowment fund in her name, Dr. Werker hopes to use this fund to empower future generations of doctors at the University of Ottawa to continue to serve the public good through health policy development and change.

When asked what she would tell future medical students, Dr. Werker shared these words of wisdom: “Physicians have enormous power and influence, but they cannot do it all—they need meaningful collaboration with other individuals from other specialties and disciplines.”

“Be willing to leave your ego at the door and enter into dialogue to reach the best solutions to the wicked health and policy problems that we face. Everyone's going to have a different point of view–we have to bring these views together to create shared stories and shared solutions,” she concluded.  

For more information about how you can create a legacy and include the University of Ottawa in your estate plans, please contact us. Thank you!

Denise H. Werker


Dr. Denise Werker

Denise Werker, uOttawa MD 1980

Dr. Denise Werker's MD 1980 class photo.


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