Dr. William Cunningham, president of the BC Medical Association (BCMA), slipped sideways into a career as a rural physician. He grew up in Victoria, BC, completed his MD at McGill, and returned to Victoria to complete a rotating internship. “My father spent time working in rural and remote communities during his career, so I knew that rural experiences could be beneficial. I wanted to practice rural medicine for a short period of time, to solidify my knowledge of all the skills I’d learned in medical school. After that, I intended to specialize in a surgical specialty and eventually return to Victoria to practice permanently.”
He applied to three northern communities and went to the one that called him back immediately – Whitehorse, YT – ostensibly for one final rural rotation before heading back to Victoria.
Cunningham remained in Whitehorse for 14 years where he eventually married and started a family.
“It was the best thing,” says Cunningham of his Yukon sojourn, “I had a clinical practice, and I managed medevacs, both within the Territory and outside of it. I ended up doing call one in two, medevac call, and did as many emergency shifts as I could, which allowed me to practice a lot of medicine and to become really skilled at it.” Cunningham also volunteered for roles that allowed him to support and shape community activities and programs. He served as the medical director for the Arctic Winter Games, volunteered as a director with Yukon Hospice, a non-profit organization, and did clinics in the small First Nations community of Carmacks. He also helped develop a local mammography screening program for Yukon women, who – prior to the establishment of the program – often had to take two days to fly to Vancouver or Edmonton for the procedure. He was president of the medical staff at Whitehorse General Hospital for many years and was involved with the Yukon Medical Association, at that time a division of the BCMA.
There is a lot of reward in rural medical practice, notes Cunningham. “There is a real rapport with your patients and they are often very grateful to have you in the community as their doctor.” He especially enjoys working with first nations communities and considers it a privilege to work with people who highly value family and spirituality. “Even if you don’t have family up north, you can establish some solid friendships. There is a lot of support in northern communities.” He strongly recommends that young physicians practice rurally and travel to other parts of Canada to learn as many skills as possible. “There are so many opportunities for emerging physicians in rural communities. You’ll be able to step into roles that wouldn’t be offered to you for several years in an urban environment.”
Cunningham and his family moved to Duncan, BC in 1999 where he currently works as an emergency physician. During his year as BCMA president, he intends to visit several rural communities, starting with small Gulf Island centres this summer. “I would like to meet as many of our members as possible – both rural and urban – and look them in the eye and listen to them about how we can better serve our patients. I want to find out directly from them what’s working and what’s not. I’d like to ask what they need from the BCMA.” Member engagement is Cunningham’s first priority for his year as president.
Cunningham firmly intends to address the bigger recruitment and retention issues affecting all BC physicians during his term. “Human resource planning in BC is not as effective as it could be,” he acknowledges. “It has to be done in a positive, collaborative way, and it needs to involve the BCMA, its constituents, the health authorities, and the Ministry of Health. We all need to collaborate together to create a sustainable healthcare workforce that meets the needs of practitioners as well as patients.”