By the North, for the North

Under Omair Quraishi, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine is using technology to turn some of Canada’s most isolated communities into their largest classroom

Photo by Jason Lind

Just as people need air, water, and shelter to survive, communities require a few essentials in order to thrive. Communities need farms, for example, to feed their inhabitants, law enforcement to protect them, schools to educate them, and infrastructure to provide them with transportation, water, power, and heat.

Also—and perhaps most importantly—communities need doctors to keep inhabitants healthy.

Unfortunately, healthcare is a necessity many Northern Ontario communities go without, according to resident Omair Quraishi. “It’s hard to imagine that in a developed nation like Canada, there are places where people don’t have a family doctor in their community—but that’s exactly the case in the North, where some communities have been without a family physician for a number of years,” says Quraishi, who moved to Northern Ontario from Calgary in 2011. “Coming from a bigger city like Calgary, I can appreciate that there are a lot of advantages to living in large city centers. But healthcare shouldn’t be one of them.”

That’s the driving mission at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), where Quraishi has served as chief information officer since 2012, having joined the organization in 2011 as manager of technology and information management systems.

Teaching Totals

Which the Northern Ontario School of Medicine serves as faculty of medicine

In the North that host students from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine

Graduates who stay in the North after completing their residency training in the region

Graduates who stay in the North after completing their residency training outside the region

Graduated to date

Across Northern Ontario

“The Northern Ontario School of Medicine was founded to meet the needs of Northern Ontario; it is a community-driven effort by the North, for the North,” explains Quraishi, hearkening to NOSM’s vision statement: “Innovative Education and Research for a Healthier North.”

“Before we were founded, a lot of the attention in Ontario when it came to medicine was focused on the South. While that’s great, there was—and still is—a huge need for primary care physicians in the North. There are a lot of people who live up here who need family doctors.”

Meeting the North’s need for physicians isn’t easy. Because of the region’s harsh weather and remote location, convincing medical school graduates to practise there can be a hard sell. Which is precisely why NOSM was established in the first place: If NOSM educated future physicians in the North, its founders theorized, getting those students to practise there after graduation would be easier.

“In order to be able to serve the North, you have to fall in love with the North,” Quraishi says. “You have to be here and learn in this environment to see what the advantages are of living here and practicing here.”

To that end, NOSM has a unique “distributed” education model: The school is hosted at two universities—Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Laurentian University in Sudbury—that are one thousand kilometres apart. During their first and second year, students are based primarily at one of the two universities, while during the third and fourth years they are based entirely in community hospitals, clinics, and family practises across Northern Ontario.

“We like to describe our campus as being eight hundred thousand square kilometres because that’s the size of Northern Ontario,” says Quraishi, who notes the region’s diverse communities and cultures, which include Aboriginal, Francophone, and English-speaking peoples. “To put that into context, that’s the size of Germany and France combined.”

“I can appreciate that there are a lot of advantages to living in large city centers. But healthcare shouldn’t be one of them.”

Because students are distributed across such a large and varied territory, technology for NOSM is more than a learning tool. It’s a linchpin.

“What technology does here more than anywhere else is bridge gaps,” Quraishi explains. “We have two primary university sites, but our learners are located in more than ninety communities all across the North. Seamlessly bringing them together using technology is what our role as an IT group is, and it’s central to what our mission is as a school.”

Quraishi’s primary objective is making the thousands of kilometres that separate students and faculty feel like zero kilometres. In addition to back-end technology like ERP systems, learning management systems, and network infrastructure, a major focus is on user-facing technology such as integrated video- and web-conferencing, an achievement of which Quraishi is especially proud.

Never Stop Learning

Quraishi offers three steps that are keeping the medical school at the top of its class:

1. Transform the future of higher education by role-modeling a distributed model of education

2. Use technology to empower faculty and students, giving them greater control and agency in their teaching and learning

3. Create a remote learning environment that is equivalent to traditional classroom learning

“Our video-conferencing communication infrastructure is second to none in Canada,” Quraishi says. “You could be in a classroom, a hospital, at home, or even just on a cellphone en route from point A to point B, and with our video-conferencing capabilities you could still participate in our educational activities.”

Another technological achievement worth boasting about is a system called “myEvents” that was launched in March 2016. “myEvents puts direct control into the hands of all of our end users by giving them the ability to book events, control videoconference rooms, and connect to each other without involving a single IT person—which is exactly what we want to do: enable people,” continues Quraishi, who says NOSM is able to do things other medical schools haven’t because of its young age. When it was established in 2005, it was Canada’s first new medical school in more than thirty years, and North America’s second.

“Because we’re a relatively small organization that’s new and young, we’re very agile and adaptable, which allows us to embrace change that would be impossible in other environments due to age-old structures and bureaucracy,” Quraishi explains. “From an IT perspective, for example, one of the greatest advantages I have is that I don’t have to deal with legacy systems that are thirty-plus years old. That’s how we’re able to accomplish as much as we can despite any other challenges we might be facing because of our size and youth.”

Quraishi can also relate on a personal level, as he was one of the youngest CIOs in higher education when he assumed the position three years ago, at the age of thirty-two.

“The biggest challenge throughout my career has been to compensate for what people perceive as a lack of experience with rapid learning and adaptability,” he says. “However, that’s also been my greatest advantage. Because whenever I’ve done anything, I’ve had to work at least one or two levels higher to gain the skills and talent I needed to succeed.”

Youth has held neither him nor NOSM back. In fact, the latter reports that approximately 94 percent of its graduates who completed their residency training in the region have stayed in the North to practice there after graduation, and several have put down roots in communities that have lacked a primary-care physician for as many as seven years. And in a region so hurting for healthcare, that’s the ultimate measure of success.

“NOSM is now looked at as a model for new medical schools across the world,” Quraishi concludes. “Technology can take no credit for that, though. Because our learners are placed in a number of communities during their time with NOSM, all the credit goes to the people of Northern Ontario. Each community goes above and beyond to make our learners feel welcome, and that more than anything is what keeps them in the North.”