This summer, David Eidelman, MDCM, wraps up his term as Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, after more than a decade in the role. He has led the Faculty through some major upheavals, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic, and many transformative initiatives, such as the opening of our French-language medical campus in Gatineau. We spoke to Dr. Eidelman about some of the standout moments from his tenure and what this self-professed nerd plans to get up to once his successor, Lesley Fellows, MDCM, takes up the reins on August 1.
You’ve served as VP-Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences since 2011. Looking back, what stands out?
The biggest highlight has been working with the incredible community that makes up our Faculty – from our learners to our academics, our admin and support staff and our leadership. I feel very fortunate to have been surrounded over the past decade by such a strong, unbeatable team of amazing people who have empowered me to do a variety of things that I would not otherwise have been able to do.
The opening of our French campus in Gatineau is a high point. It was a true labour of love by colleagues in the Faculty and it has further strengthened our longstanding role in healthcare delivery and medical education in Outaouais and in Quebec.
I’m also proud of renaming of the Faculty and the creation of three new distinct Schools – Medicine, Population and Global Health and Biomedical Sciences – during my tenure. These changes underscore the multi-professional and -disciplinary nature of our Faculty and the incredible contributions all our Schools – including Nursing, Physical and Occupational Therapy, and Communication Sciences and Disorders – make to our missions.
You’ve faced some pretty big challenges over your tenure. Looking back, what were the toughest?
Undoubtedly, the pandemic is the biggest challenge any of us has faced in recent memory. It not only resulted in many changes to our daily life but also highlighted the fragility of our health care system. The Faculty faced many disruptions during this period – to teaching and learning, to research and delivery of patient care and to university services. Members of our Faculty rallied not only to keep the ship afloat, but to excel and work tirelessly to combat COVID-19’s effects on our communities. It’s what we were trained for, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. I can never thank them enough.
The tragic deaths of George Floyd and Joyce Echaquan forced us to take a hard look at systemic racism in education and health care. We are working to do better and to make the Faculty a kinder, more welcoming place for people from all backgrounds, including through our ongoing Our Words Matter campaign. Equity, diversity and inclusion is a major priority for our Faculty, and our community is fully committed to keeping it front and centre and making sure these principles inform all that we do. There is still a long way to go, but I sincerely believe we are on the right path. I thank our partners in the Faculty’s Office of Social Accountability and Community Engagement and the Indigenous Health Professions Program, as well as McGill’s Equity and Indigenous Initiatives offices, for helping lead us there.
You studied here at McGill starting in 1972 and joined as faculty in 1984. What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed, first of all from the student perspective?
Looking back, when we graduated, it seemed to us to an enlightened era, but it was just so primitive compared to now. There was no big data, no genomics. The list of things that hadn’t happened yet is extraordinary. From the point of view of a medical student, which is what I was, it was easier to get in then. Med school itself was hard, but easier than now because there was simply less to know and it was less specialized. Now, unfortunately, students begin to worry about how to get the specialty they want right from the beginning of med school.
How have things changed for faculty members?
There were fewer of us back and the Faculty was a much smaller world, focused around the Vic and the General – which were both walking distance from the Dean’s office – and also the Jewish. Now the Glen is a high profile teaching site and the Jewish has expanded. Interprofessional teams are much more important now. There was also no notion of equity, diversity and inclusion or anything like that, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, socioeconomic origins and language. French is rightfully much more prominent now – back then there were plenty of people, both students and faculty members, who came here and never really spoke French.
From an academic point of view, it was easier to get funding if you were doing research. On the other hand, nowadays the educational aspects of all the health professions schools are much more rigorously overseen. We have the Institute of Health Sciences Education and each of our Schools has people focused on education as an academic discipline.
What are some of the key ingredients to achieving success for our Faculty’s missions?
First, you must attract good students. We have great students, so that’s an easy one. It’s essential to have great faculty members, and we’ve been very fortunate to continue to recruit outstanding people. You have to have great admin staff and we have really some of the best people who are extremely committed to the University and to the Faculty.
You need to have good government support and in Quebec we get that from the provincial government, which is generous with its universities and a strong supporter of our research and educational missions. Another important source of support that helps McGill successfully compete against bigger universities is help from our donors and friends. I always say that what helps make McGill more than just the average health sciences Faculty is donor support. Thanks to them, we can do things that we couldn’t otherwise and our Faculty ranks at a level that is much higher than you’d expect given our financial profile. Donor support enables us to excel.
Time to get out your crystal ball. What do you think health care will look like 10, 20, 50 years from now?
There are a number of factors that are going to drive change, including demographics, migration, climate change, and social inequality. The other big factor is, of course, technologies such as AI. I personally think that doctors will be empowered by these technologies, as has happened in the past, but their role will change. Nurses, physical and occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists will also be empowered, but their very direct relationship with the patient cannot be replaced by technology under any circumstances. As a boomer, I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek. Even though it takes place in the far future, there’s always a doctor. They have these amazing tools we can only imagine, but there’s still a doctor. It’s only a show, but for me it underscores the fact that even with technology, people do want to have someone they can relate to as they receive care.
It’s hard to predict how all this will impinge upon health care. Some of the changes will be very, very good but there’s a risk that some won’t be so good. My successors’ job is going to be to help guide the Faculty in the right direction so that we make the most of the opportunities that present themselves and do what we can to avoid falling into any traps.
That leads perfectly to our next question: do you have any words of wisdom for your successor, Lesley Fellows?
One thing that took me a while to learn, but I’m sure Lesley will learn it much more quickly than I did, is how big a shift it was from my previous roles as Physician-in-Chief and Chair of Medicine. I underestimated that when I first arrived. Lesley has been in a very important role as Vice-Dean, Academic Affairs, but she’s moving to a different role now. Another thing, which I’ve mentioned to her already, is that it’s a very hard job, but it’s really cool. The things you get to see, learn and do in this job, you don’t get in any other job. There are certainly moments when you ask yourself, ‘Why the heck did I do this? It’s so hard.’ But then there are other moments when I can’t get the smile off my face because I’m just so happy to be part of it. I have the perspective now of 11 1/2 years, and the good far outweighs the bad.
What are your plans when your mandate ends?
My first order of business is to take a real holiday and not think about anything else. Other than that, I have some ideas about retraining in my research and doing a lot of teaching, but I don’t have any firm plans other than the holiday.
How about in your free time?
I’m a very nerdy person and photography and computer programming are my two favourite hobbies. They combine a little bit of artistic stuff with nerdy technology stuff. So, I hope that I’ll get a chance to practise both of those, especially my photography, which I stopped doing during the pandemic because it was just too hard, so I’m out of practice. I’m really quite excited about that.
I also hope to get a chance to go visit my grandchildren, who live in Texas, a bit more. It’s not like I can just go down the street and hang out as it’s quite far, but I’m hoping they’ll come here to see me this summer and that I’ll get a chance to go there in fall.
Any last thoughts you would like to share with the Faculty community?
Simply, thank you. Being Dean of Medicine and Health Sciences at McGill has been a huge privilege and honour. You get to do so many diverse things and collaborate with so many wonderful people every day, both inside and outside of the Faculty. Thank you, sincerely, to all of you for the opportunity.
Photo: Owen Egan and Joni Dufour