OTTAWA — For millions of people, celebrating what it means to be Canadian on July 1 involves a backyard barbecue or taking the family to see a fireworks show.
But each year, thousands of young people mark the day by joining one of Canada’s most treasured institutions — the health care system.
July 1 is the first day of work for Canada’s new doctors. This year, that means about 2,500 new doctors will begin their medical residencies in hospitals across the country. The majority will begin training as family doctors, with internal medicine the next most popular speciality.
Matthew Sheppard is beginning his training in anethesiology in Ottawa after completing a medical degree at Memorial University.
He said he’s excited, but also frightened.
“You don’t have as much responsibility as a medical student. Once you become a resident, that all changes,” said Sheppard, who is also the former president of the Canadian Medical Students Association.
“It’s certainly a time where you have to step up to the plate and know what you’re doing. The time has come and it’s now.”
It can also be a scary time for the health care system. Research suggests there is a correlation between the number of new doctors who begin in July and medical errors, including fatal drug mistakes. But if your Canada Day celebrations end up with a trip to the emergency room, don’t be afraid of all the new white coats.
“We all know what happens in July. We understand that the people we are getting as residents were medical students the day before,” said Dr. Molly Zirkle, an otolaryngolist who is the director of the Fitzgerald Academy, which focuses on medical education at four Toronto health centres, including St. Michael’s Hospital.
“Our level of supervision is high and their understanding of what they know is very clear, because they know very little and they are much more open about being open about how little they know,” she said.
At her centre, new residents are paired with more senior doctors and never put on call alone on weekends, among other things.
New doctors are called residents because in decades past, they literally lived in hospitals during their training.
Now, it just feels like they live there, sometimes working more than 24 hours in a row.
On television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House,” long hours and stressful conditions lead to all sorts of canoodling and intrigue, but the real life of a resident is a lot less glamorous.
Studies have shown that extended shifts cause residents to have more car accidents than those who work regular hours. Doctors are also at higher risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse
“Now that we know all these facts, it’s important that doctors and medical students and residents recognize we’re not immortal, we’re not infallible,” Sheppard said.
“If we’re in trouble we need to ask for help.”
Getting a balance between work and life has become more of a priority for doctors in recent years, with residents’ associations forming provincially and nationally to advocate for better working conditions.