Confronting COVID misinformation

I would like to address the online video promoting false views on the devastating consequences of the pandemic and the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in which a College of Medicine Clinical Professor plays a leading role.

I first became aware of this video early yesterday afternoon but due to many obligations including attending last evening’s provincial Physician Town Hall I was unable to review the video until last evening. I must say the 90 minutes spent reviewing it in detail was some of the most distressing time I have spent in the last 18 months of this long and difficult pandemic.

I categorically state that I and the College of Medicine do not endorse the content of the video that questions the very existence and severity of this pandemic and the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, as well as the many conspiracy theories and assertions cast at many incredible people and valued institutions in our country and around the world.

On behalf of the College of Medicine I sincerely apologize to all those people who have suffered the ravages of this awful disease and those who continue to suffer. I apologize to the families of over 500 people in Saskatchewan who have died from COVID-19.

I am also thinking of all the front-line heath care workers including our medical students and residents, our medical faculty and our partners at the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and regret the promulgation of these views by a person associated with the College of Medicine.

To our learners and to the public I want to reassure you that none of this content or the views expressed are part of our curriculum. In fact, the pandemic has taught us the importance of teaching ways in which physicians can effectively counter false information in delivering healthcare in a sensitive and patient centred manner.

I do acknowledge that individuals have the right to express their personal opinions on any topic within certain limitations set by our society and the law. In the context of a university, I want to emphasize the importance of academic freedom for university faculty and the absolute need for the protection of faculty to freely communicate in the areas of their scholarly work. This is particularly important where that scholarly work is supported by recognized credentials and expertise.

In that regard I also am thinking of the credibility of the many qualified and credentialled experts on COVID-19 we have in the College of Medicine and across our entire campus in the fields of Virology, Microbiology, Vaccinology, Epidemiology, Public Health, and Infectious Diseases. Know that the College of Medicine supports and depends on your expertise.

Another area of expertise for which Saskatchewan is increasingly recognized is physician leadership and nearly all of the great physician leaders at the SHA that have led us through this pandemic also have medical faculty appointments in the College of Medicine. I know how disheartening the promotion of false information about COVID-19 must be.

All of these scientists and physician leaders have worked long and hard alongside our learners, physicians and allied healthcare workers over the last 18 months to fight this pandemic by promoting the best evidence and best practices to care for our people and protect this great province. I thank all of you.

At this stage of the pandemic our highest priority must be the vaccination of the vast majority of our population. Yesterday was also the day I received my second dose of the vaccine at the drive-thru at Prairieland Park. I marveled at the dedication, caring, and efficiency of those front-line workers. Thank you. At the College of Medicine, it is incumbent on all of us to promote vaccination to our patients, colleagues, friends, neighbours and the public at large.

In that regard I would like to draw your attention to a few examples of people within our college who have been instrumental in this work with the important proviso to acknowledge there are many, many others doing equally valuable work.

I would like to point out the amazing work on public education by Drs. Cory Neudorf, Nazeem Muhajarine, Alex Wong, Joseph Blondeau and Hassan Masri in endless interviews, public presentations and social media posts. I also acknowledge the amazing work done by the team at Morning Star Lodge, led by Dr. Carrie Bourassa, that has been working since the very beginning of the pandemic to serve Indigenous communities to address misinformation. They and many others at the College of Medicine have consistently provided accurate, reliable, evidence-based information on the pandemic and the vaccines for the public.

In terms of evidence, I would like to recognize Drs. Gary Groot and Bruce Reeder, as well as the USask and SHA librarians, graduate students and many others who have constantly researched in real time the rapidly evolving evidence accumulated by experts around the world to guide our clinicians and decision makers. They are currently embarking on the research to guide the care of people with “long COVID” – a challenge that will be with us for years to come.

I would like to recognize the amazing work done by our Medical Health Officers at the SHA and Dr. Saqib Shahab, our Chief Medical Health Officer, in guiding policy and providing the incredible but challenging day to day work of Public Health in a pandemic. This is what they trained for and hoped never to have to do! These MHOs are members of our Department of Community Health and Epidemiology and teach in our medical doctor program and Public Health and Preventative Medicine residency program.

Our Division of Continuing Medical Education led by Dr Jim Barton has provided an incredibly important role in partnership with the SHA in supporting the Physician Town Halls which have been very popular and instructive, various events and seminars on COVID-19 and the upskilling of 105 physicians to ensure we have all of the physicians the SHA needs to staff emergency rooms, COVID wards and intensive care units.

Finally, while noting I am leaving out many other heroes, I want to emphasize the incredible asset we have in Saskatchewan at the University of Saskatchewan in VIDO, and the ground-breaking work there in vaccinology, including our own COVID-19 vaccine currently in testing.

These people and many others at the College of Medicine and the University of Saskatchewan are the experts in the fields of virology, microbiology, vaccinology, epidemiology, public health, infectious diseases and healthcare leadership. These are the people we will turn to for guidance and expertise as we continue to care for our people through this most challenging time.

Let’s all continue our efforts to promote vaccination in Saskatchewan so that we can all wear that sticker that says, “I STUCK IT TO COVID.”

Interim accreditation review another critical milestone for the CoM

An incredible amount of work has been underway on accreditation of our Undergraduate Medical Education program since our successful 2017 full-site visit and our official results from that visit, received in 2018. This is, of course, because accreditation requires an ongoing, continuous improvement approach that ideally informs and supports how we work every day.

For the UGME program, while our results from 2017 were strong and very encouraging, there remained substantial work and commitment from our team to build the program back from the significant accreditation challenges of the past. This work was by no means completed in 2017. At the same time, programs must always be advancing and improving in line with changes in health care and health care education. So there is no opportunity to “rest on our laurels” when it comes to accreditation and in becoming the excellent medical school which we aspire to be.

And that is as it should be, given the importance of a strong medical education program, and a strong Saskatchewan medical school!

With this blog, I want to highlight the UGME interim accreditation review, which marks the halfway point of our eight-year accreditation cycle as we prepare for our next full-site accreditation review in 2026. This interim review will inform our ongoing work, and the results will not be released to the Committee on Accreditation of Canadian Medical Schools (CACMS). They will be provided to the leadership of the College of Medicine.

Many of you who support and are key stakeholders in the UGME program have been assisting our amazing UGME accreditation team of Dr. Athena McConnell, director quality and accreditation, and Pat Williamson, accreditation specialist. As many are aware, Athena is also interim provincial head of the Department of Pediatrics, supporting our college in another important capacity at this time. And in light of that, I do want to highlight the work and diligence Pat is managing in her role to support our important accreditation review and continuous quality improvement work.

Thank you to Pat, Athena, UGME leadership and staff, and numerous others throughout the college  who have been working on gathering the necessary documentation for the review for the past 18 months. Another big thank you to everyone else involved in supporting and informing this work, with a special mention to the faculty and students who participated in our Medical School Self Study Working Groups and worked diligently for over a year providing valuable feedback! The preliminary review and rating of the documentation by these working groups flagged several areas that are at risk, and many of the suggested improvements are already underway.

The interim accreditation review is taking place October 4-5, 2021, and will be overseen by an external reviewer and Athena, as well as a committee of internal reviewers, including faculty and students. The review team will be deciding on which key stakeholders they need to meet with this summer to ask important questions about how the program is functioning. This will likely include but is not limited to: college level leaders, UGME leaders, residents and students.

The review team will provide their results in October or November of this year, informing our work as we continue to improve our UGME program and prepare for our full site visit in the spring of 2026. As accreditation goes, and given the complexities and many support structures involved in UGME, that is not a long time away.

In other college accreditation news, the Division of Continuing Medical Education had a resoundingly successful accreditation report earlier this year and the School of Rehabilitation Science is awaiting its report from a very well-executed accreditation visit in March.

Our college is fully accredited across all our programs. Accreditation is a huge team commitment and effort, and beyond our commitment to meet those requirements, we aspire to a higher level of excellence to be the medical school our province deserves and the world needs.