Department of Family Medicine Welcomes Yellowknife to the Team

DoFM residency program has a hand in setting up Canada's first circumpolar family medicine residency learning site.

Danica Erickson - 03 September 2020

The Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta has worked with a team of stakeholders in the Northwest Territories to establish Canada’s first circumpolar residency learning site. On July 1 of 2020, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories became a full-time learning site for family medicine residents and other medical learners to experience the rewards and challenges of providing medical care in rural and remote northern communities.

This initiative has been championed by Dr. David Pontin, MD, CCFP(EM), who has spent almost 10 years working toward making this learning site a reality. “This has been a dream of mine for a very long time” says Pontin. “The fact that’s it’s finally off the ground has been a kind of an example of really wanting something, getting a lot of people on board over the years and here we are starting a residency program in Yellowknife. It’s very exciting for all of us. 

The Department of Family Medicine’s reputation for providing a high-quality family medicine resident training experience led Pontin to reach out to Dr. John Chmelicek, director of the postgraduate residency program, and request his assistance in setting up a residency training program. Chmelicek, along with other faculty and staff in the Department of Family Medicine worked with many dedicated stakeholders over 18 months to identify the staffing, training and technology requirements needed to provide a high-quality educational experience for family medicine residents.

Pontin moved to Yellowknife about 15 years ago with his wife Jennifer Harris, who also a full-time family physician with special interest in addictions medicine. He spent the first 12 years of his career in Yellowknife as a family doctor practicing emergency care and is now practicing full-time family care. Initially, Pontin and Harris were looking for some adventure, having had friends who worked and trained in Yellowknife who told them it was a great experience. But they had also been interested in the opportunity to work in Canada’s north and to experience what it really means to work in a full-scope family medicine practice. “You have to be a jack of all trades and, in fact, this residency program is a good example of that” explains Pontin. The scope of delivery of medical care required in Yellowknife is why the training site was designed with the Family Medicine Professional Profile in mind.

Pontin’s experience in Yellowknife has been different from what he expected in a number of ways. To begin, he didn’t anticipate still being in the community 15 years later. There are a lot of stereotypes attached to the north, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that instead of a small isolated northern city, he found himself in a busy, cosmopolitan capital city with all of the same things found in any other capital city in Canada. He was also surprised at the number of medical supports available in the north and how many perspectives exist culturally, linguistically and in the arts scene throughout the whole Northwest Territories.

However, some very remote and isolated communities are located within the clinic’s area of responsibility, which comprises about one-third of Canada’s land mass. Health professionals in Yellowknife serve the entire geographic footprint of the Northwest Territories, plus about one-third of Nunavut called the Kitikmeot, which stretches geographically from a line extending directly north from Thunder Bay, Ontario all the way to the Yukon border. It’s a massive area with a population of about 60,000.  “We have this constant mantra in the Northwest Territories that while the scale is small the scope is massive. These 40,000 people have to provide everything you’d have in a much larger system, so one of the things that has kept me here is the ability to move within a system and to have a great deal of agency in how things are done and how to contribute to that system. For me it’s been a very practical and exciting.”

Residents training in Yellowknife will experience support beyond what that they might have expected; it’s not a matter of being isolated working in a small northern city. Like Pontin when he arrived in Yellowknife 15 years ago, residents will see a new hospital and experience a lot of specialist support, research activity, and innovative initiatives happening around cultural safety and cultural competence.

Family medicine residents in Yellowknife can expect to find themselves surrounded by people that they will find very supportive, and integration into the community happens quickly. Yellowknife is a warm, friendly community full of people who have also come from other parts of Canada. Pontin can attest to that, and also to frequently hearing how quickly newcomers find themselves becoming a welcome member of the community.

For example, Pontin recently had a conversation at a dinner party about cultural competency training and was the director of one of Yellowknife’s museums joined in the discussion. The result was an unexpected opportunity for the museum director to get involved in an initiative with the Yellowknife Region of the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority. “You get these really unexpected, fascinating interactions with these people doing a lot of different things and a lot of really creative things can happen from there.” says Pontin.

Pontin and Tannis Arcuri, the administrator for the Yellowknife learning site, are also quick to point out the opportunities Yellowknife offers in addition to the great medical education opportunity. From a practitioner point of view, Pontin believes that one of the things people can really enjoy in about Yellowknife is the ability to work in an urban centre will a great food scene and great activities, while also having on of the largest untouched wildernesses in the world at your doorstep. ”You have this intense contact with increasingly rare thing we have on our planet which is this massive boreal forest and this very big wilderness. One of the things I love most about being in Yellowknife is the ability to be 20 minutes from town in the middle of the quiet, very remote-feeling boreal forest and then 20 minutes later being in the middle of in City of Yellowknife. Bringing our children up there has been just an absolutely wonderful experience for them and for us“.