Passionate Orillia doctor a champion for health care in Ontario

Orillia physician Rose Zacharias, who is Ontario Medical Association president, is ‘laser-focused’ on patients and ‘advocating for physicians in Ontario’

In a variety of fields, there are those who practice the profession and there are those who advocate for progress and for their fellow professionals.

Orillia physician Rose Zacharias has found a way to do both, in a way that uses her natural talents of teamwork and building strong relationships.

Zacharias, 51, grew up in the St. Thomas/Aylmer area of ​​southwestern Ontario. She earned bachelor’s, master’s and medical degrees from McMaster University before completing her residency and moving to Orillia in 2003.

She spent 18 years as a family doctor at Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, working in the emergency department, as a psychiatry hospitalist, and as a surgical assistant before transitioning to the Waypoint Center for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene during the pandemic.

Last year, Zacharias was elected president of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), representing more than 43,000 doctors in the province, and he has spent that time advocating on their behalf and for improving health care for all Ontarians.

It’s been an eye-opening role that has not only taken her across the province, but also built her skills.

While growing up, Zacharias said she found her communication skills were as strong as, if not stronger than, her academic skills, and she chose to pursue medical school, not for her natural acuity in science, but because she saw it as a challenge.

“I think I’m driven by goals, and being first born — the oldest of three daughters — I think I just was wired as a high achiever and I really saw it as a competitive field that, at first, I counted myself out, and didn’t know if I had what it took as far as academics to become a doctor,” she said.

As she was applying for medical school, the field was “opening up” and realizing that strong people skills were just as important as academics.

“I excelled and really started to own the fact that, yeah, I’m going to be a doctor because I’m wired to have both of these skill sets: (I’m) academically strong and curious and dedicated to learning and knowledge , but also building relationships, communicating, and caring about people,” she said.

During her career, Zacharias said she has found herself “laser focused” on her individual patients, something her role as OMA president has allowed her to expand on by connecting with health-care professionals and government officials across Ontario.

“I’m absolutely in my element … advocating for physicians in Ontario. This is a communication role. This is a relationship-building role, really cultivating meaningful relationships,” she said. “Bringing the health care of Ontarians forward requires good relationships with the government, inside of our publicly funded health-care system. It requires good relationships with other health-care stakeholders.”

Her strength in advocacy, however, stems from building positive relationships.

“I’ve worked in the emergency department for 20 years, knowing that every member of our health-care team — the nurses, the lab technicians, the physiotherapist, the X-ray technician, the ward clerk, everybody who’s on the team in the emergency department — is so valuable,” she said.

“When you’re advocating for a health-care system, it’s so important to have healthy, trusting relationships with everybody in that sphere, and that really lends itself well to this role.”

Zacharias’ competitive and teamwork-oriented attitude can be seen in other areas of her life.

She grew up playing a variety of sports and, since becoming a doctor, has completed eight marathons and competed in triathlons.

Her athletic life, like her working life, has been all about building a positive community around her.

“Even with running, as an individual of a sport as marathoning and triathlons and cycling is, you’re still in a community of healthy, active individuals who you become bonded to. There’s nothing like going for a 30-kilometer practice run and doing it alongside a friend,” she said.

“Even now, some of the best conversations, some of the best relationships I have are … with people who run and ride, and I think that’s what’s driven me more so than any sort of gold medal or podium finish.”

The term for an OMA president lasts one year. With her term ending in May, one of the final tasks for her as president is to travel the province and hear from doctors. One of the questions she will ask will be about burnout.

“We know that we’re a profession that’s 75 per cent burnt out, so (I’ll be) connecting with people, encouraging my colleagues and really finding the potential for positive change,” she said.

With her term winding down, and with her new experiences representing tens of thousands of doctors, Zacharias is contemplating her next move.

“I’ll never stop being a doctor. I think I’ll always have a clinical aspect to my job, at least in the near future, but I can’t see what I have seen now, which is to really effect change. It requires coming to the table where decisions are being made, and I am actually exploring expanding my education. I’m considering doing a focused (master of business administration) in health and life sciences,” she said.

“I think health-care leadership, in one aspect or another, is where I’m headed.”

Wherever she chooses to go next, she is confident she will have her community behind her.

“I know what keeps me going, and it’s the strong people I have in my community. I’m married to a pediatrician. I actually am a mom to four teenagers now,” she said. “I have a fantastic, healthy, supportive family and a community of friends, and I attend … Connexus Community Church, and there I’ve also experienced a real supportive community that really supports me no matter what as a person.”

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