Physician health ambassadors in schools across Alberta

My daring idea for health care in Alberta

June 6, 2017

Kimberley P. Kelly, MD, CCFP, FCFP

Contributed by: Kimberley P. Kelly, MD, CCFP, FCFP

I was fortunate to recently share my daring idea with a roomful of trailblazers from the education sector at Shaping the Future, the only conference in Canada promoting Comprehensive School Health, a preventative approach recognized by the World Health Organization that aims to improve the health outcomes for children and youth. My daring idea is to have a physician ambassador associated with every school in Alberta!

We all know that if we invest more in prevention, we can save money in the long run and improve health outcomes for our children and youth. Schools are a perfect environment to access children for 13 years. The potential to influence the development of long-term healthy behaviors is huge.

For a moment, let’s imagine a school assembly with you addressing the student body and staff on how exercise is connected to improved mood or why sleep is so important to students’ wellbeing and ability to learn. Perhaps you are also able to tie in the need to decrease screen time and promote playing outside to reduce stress, improve physical health and boost creativity.

Let’s further imagine a second event where you are attending a school community BBQ and are casually conversing with students and parents about the benefits of outdoor activities at their school, like a Terry Fox Run or snowshoeing. In these scenarios, the chance of you having a positive impact on your community is great.

Now let’s reverse roles and pretend that you are a teacher or a principal. Imagine your school community having access to a physician or a medical student, someone who is typically found in a sterile hospital setting or in a busy clinic. To have the opportunity to build a relationship with a health professional would be invaluable for the school. Students would have an additional trusted, knowledgeable adult to share concerns with, to laugh with and to have fun with on a more informal level.

We have complex problems to solve: childhood poverty, lack of equity, stigma, discrimination, addiction and mental illness, to name a few. We know these complex problems can’t be solved by a pill. We also know that our society prioritizes illness over wellness. I feel we can improve the pivotal relationship between doctors, children and youth. We can easily do this by promoting and supporting connections between physicians and students in school communities. Creating these relationships has the potential to change culture and drive society to prioritize wellness over illness.

I know my daring idea is possible because it happened to me. I jumped in with both feet and became a health champion at my sons’ school. I started by volunteering with our Alberta Medical Association (AMA) Youth Run Club and in our school’s outdoor garden. I then progressed to leading a walking school bus initiative which next led to creating a wellness team and becoming an Ever Active School.

It took time and patience, but the school culture changed to a healthier one. This transformation occurred by simply showing up and becoming part of my school community. By listening, being open, collaborating and sharing my knowledge, I was able to work with others to identify and address priority health needs for our community.

My experience illustrates that a doctor can help create a healthy school community, but surprisingly, I learned that the community can help the doctor. By leaving my office one half-day a week and engaging with my school community, I was rejuvenated and healed from cynicism. I reignited the spark inside that called me to serve many years ago.

I feel it’s time to scale and spread my experience provincially! It may seem like a daunting task, but the AMA Youth Run Club already has 40 physician and medical student ambassadors. A next step would be to recruit parent physicians who have a vested interest in their children’s school communities and other interested physicians.

Over 250 years ago, poet William Blake said, “What is now proved was once only imagined.” The education sector has been an excellent health advocate over the past decade and Comprehensive School Health continues to gain momentum. It is time for physicians to join forces with our education partners and become health ambassadors in our schools across the province. Truly, it is a natural fit!

The Alberta Medical Association stands as an advocate for its physician members, providing leadership & support for their role in the provision of quality health care.