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Would a life in politics actually be about improving society? This is the question I find myself asking as I return home from a deeply rewarding trip to Ethiopia. I consider the satisfaction I feel about contributing to society in that setting. In stark contrast I consider the shenanigans that have gone on in Canadian politics in the past few weeks. Then I think I must be out of my mind to contemplate trading a life in medical education and health care for a life in politics.

It’s a poorly kept secret that I’ve been toying with the idea of getting involved in formal politics. After all, it’s not such a stretch to jump from medicine to politics. More than 100 years ago, Dr. Rudolf Virchow noted that “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.” For my whole life, I have tried to suppress thoughts about entering formal politics. But the more determined I become to address the big social and health problems afflicting all countries in the world, the more it seems that politics could be the best way to impact positive change on a grand scale. I had a conversation about this with the Right Honourable Paul Martin in May 2011. He indicated that if the conditions were right, I could accomplish more for the public good as an elected politician than in all my other efforts as an advocate and a physician-educator.

With Ethiopian health officer, Tarik, and family medicine residents Dr. Meseret and Dr. Assefa

I still feel torn. The satisfaction of my work in Ethiopia contributes to the uncertainty. I was there again to support the new Family Medicine residency that started in February. During this trip we interviewed the 8 young people who are the first trainees in the program. Their personal stories, their courage and their determination are incredibly inspiring. I count myself among the luckiest people in the world that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of the development of their training program. I wonder if I should simply continue my current work of contributing to health care and medical education in Canada and abroad.

But even in Ethiopia, I can see that some of the work has to be done above the level of the grassroots. For all the hard work, passion and fortitude of physician-educators in Ethiopia, even there, sweeping and sustainable changes in medical education and health care have to come from higher authorities. Indeed if Canadians want to have a major impact on health and development in less-resourced settings, that also has to come from more that just individuals or even institutions. Canada as a nation (through its political leaders) needs to understand and commit to the most effective forms of foreign aid.

So here are two of my conclusions from this brief reflection:

  1. Big sustainable societal improvements require big-minded political leaders prepared to work together for the public good – locally and globally.
  2. Some concerned and committed citizens in any society need to step up to public service in the political arena to make sure those big societal improvements come to be.

Those conclusions make it sound like I’m ready to throw my hat in the ring. But there’s one more problem. As I consider of life in politics and I look at the scandals that are completely distracting political leaders in Canada, I feel discouraged. Of course, these scandals need to be addressed and resolved. But it is an atrocity that the government and our elected officials are so mired in these messes that they can’t do any real work. How can they get on with representing their people; accomplishing something for good; and moving our country forward?

From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that the Canadian political scene has become a narrow-minded, self-serving, partisan-driven quagmire. Who would want to get involved in that? My hope rests in a steadfast conviction that both inside and outside of politics there are still countless fair-minded Canadians who are prepared to step in and redeem this mess. Canada needs and deserves better leadership. Canada needs people who will help restore our democratic system so that we can get on with building a better nation and a better world. What part would you like to help with? What should my role be?

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Discussion - 2 Comments
  1. Ron S

    Jun 02, 2013  at 5:49 AM

    Do you define “politics” as running for a political position in a federal, or provincial, postion? I’m thinking that there may be other political positions – large NGO – that could significantly influence the greater good for so many. It seems the choice might be “in what context (health specific or general population) do I want to become involved?”


  2. Pingback: Coming out of the closet | Jane Philpott

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