In 2005, when Kathryn Dong (MSc ’07) was an emergency medicine resident, she volunteered in Edmonton’s inner-city communities. There, she encountered countless people living in poverty with addictions, mental health issues and unstable housing.
The experience was life changing for her, as well as for those she now serves.
Dong says that volunteering with Streetworks, a harm reduction and health promotion agency, opened her eyes to the stories of how people end up where there are. “There is so much more we need to be doing in acute care,” she explains. “I knew I couldn’t just revert to medicine without doing something more upstream to get at the root cause of the health issues that I was seeing.”
As a result, she began a master of science degree program in population health in the School of Public Health. “My master’s degree has allowed me to have a career that is not only about treating patients individually in the emergency department, but is also about identifying and studying the health inequities that result in people getting sick in the first place,” says Dong.
“Stomping out these inequities will allow me to help my patients more effectively and efficiently than just fixing their acute medical issue alone.”
Today, Dong is an emergency room physician and director of the Inner City Health and Wellness Program at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. The program is funded with a three-year, $3.5 million grant from the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation. It aims to provide better care to users of the emergency department whose health is complicated by poverty, homelessness or drug and alcohol use disorders.
In addition to program delivery, the grant supports research and training components.
Colleague Ginetta Salvalaggio, assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, is leading development of the research program to evaluate whether the work of the clinical team positively affects health outcomes. This work is supported by Cam Wild, professor in the School of Public Health, and Chris McCabe, professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry.
In terms of training, Dong hopes to relaunch an elective that she developed for medical residents. She believes that it is important for today’s medical learners to be exposed to inner-city health. “We know patients that live in poverty have a higher burden of disease and are sick more often. When we interact, these are critical moments where we can make a difference,” she says.
Dong is having a profound impact on at-risk patients, on those she works with and on medical learners. It is this impact that recently resulted in her being acknowledged by the University of Alberta with an Alumni Horizon Award. The award recognizes the outstanding achievements of University of Alberta alumni early in their careers.
Sahil Gupta, a medical student who supported Dong’s nomination for the alumni award, says, “The benefits of Dr. Dong’s work are already visible in the transformative way care is being provided to some of the most vulnerable patients who present to health care settings.”
Colleagues also agree that Dong is making important contributions to patient care. “Under the sensitive care of Dr. Dong, the Inner City Health Program will revolutionize health-care delivery to at-risk patients and transform the climate of addiction and inner-city medicine in both Edmonton and throughout North America,” notes Allison Kirkham, co-chief resident of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Alberta.
Marliss Taylor, program manager of Streetworks, was instrumental in introducing Dong to inner city health when Dong first volunteered there in 2005. “She has always given the community we serve the utmost respect, professionalism and service,” says Taylor. “She is an advocate for these most vulnerable residents with her colleagues and the organizations with which she works.”
When asked what she hopes her legacy to be, Dong said, “I’d love to see the Royal Alexandra Hospital develop as a centre of excellence for addiction medicine, where everyone who walks through the door feels comfortable talking about their addiction. It is a place where we can treat it in an evidence-based fashion, and we can successfully link people to longer term treatment."