Ottawa·Q&A

Dr. Vera Etches is Ottawa's first female officer of health

After filling the role for five months, Dr. Vera Etches was officially announced as the city's new medical officer of health on Tuesday.

Mental illness, healthy lifestyles, and substance use biggest public health challenges, says Etches

On Tuesday, city council approved the board of health's recommendation to name Dr. Vera Etches as Ottawa's medical officer of health. (CBC)

After filling the role for five months, Dr. Vera Etches was officially announced as the city's new medical officer of health on Tuesday.

Now the city's first female chief medical officer of health, 44-year-old Etches replaces Dr. Isra Levy, who left the city's top medical job (which is often the city's top-paying job as well) last November to join the Canadian Blood Services.

She grew up "a small-town girl" in northern B.C., but says her "passion for public health" took her to bigger centres, including Toronto and Sudbury.

She's been with Ottawa Public Health since 2009. She's also an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa.

Etches spoke with CBC Tuesday afternoon after council approved her appointment.


The most obvious question first: why public health?

I found that while I was working as a family physician, there were many things could be prevented if only we had intervened earlier.

So in public heath, that's what we try to do. There are many, many stories.

There are obvious ones, like somebody who has lung cancer, and you think if they hadn't been introduced to cigarettes when they were 13, they wouldn't have been so likely to have lung cancer.

There are more subtle things. As a family physician, I saw people sometimes struggle with literacy and not being able to understand their health conditions or medication.

So in public health we try to get at those root causes, where they have the support to learn how to read. 

What are the biggest public health challenges facing Ottawa right now?

There are many different health issues depending on the age and what population you're talking about.

Something that does effect all of us is mental health. That's in our strategic plan right now.

Also, healthy eating and active living, trying to create the environment that makes it easier for us to make the healthy choice.

That's a challenge across all of our ages, and it's not going away.

Looking ahead, it's no surprise that substance use is a health issue that we'll be continuing to work on, whether it's opioids or cannabis.

How do you see your role in an era where marijuana is legalized?

In a survey, we found that people in the city have some misperceptions about the impact of cannabis on health.

Particularly, they are not necessarily as aware of how youth and youth brain development can be affected.

Our role is to make sure people have the information they need to make good choices.

We know people do use cannabis, so we'll be talking about how to use in a way that has less risk — for instance, it's better if you don't smoke it.

Your predecessor believed in supervised injection sites, when the mayor and the chair of the board of health did not. How will you deal with it if you disagree with the mayor?

I can't speak for the mayor — the mayor will speak for himself, and I will speak for health.

The mayor will speak for himself, and I will speak for health.- Dr. Vera Etches

My role is to bring the evidence to the question of the day. 

We talked around the evidence of supervised injection services and consumption sites, it's one way of helping the opioid crisis. We know there are many other strategies that are needed.

So when I look at the opioid crisis now, I think we need to work on prevention. We've been reaching parents and youth, people that work with youth. But we could go even earlier.

What are the root causes of why people age and use substance? It's complex. So we need to keep working on making sure children are protected and not exposed to early trauma.

We need to work in the our health care sector to make sure that the prescribing of drugs is following evidence-based guidelines. So we continue to bring the evidence to bear.

In your daily life, how do you walk the public-health talk, especially with two preschoolers? 

I am very happy that I have a family. Many people try to juggle work and a family, whether it's young children or older adults that you're caring for.

For me, you can't give people advice if you aren't taking it.

So I do try to keep a balance between work and family, and try to role-model that.

I own a car now, but recently was juggling two kids on a bus … it was a little bit more challenging!

I also just try to build in physical activity going from here to there. I'm often walking to the bus, or from the bus, or biking around.

Some people think you have to get to the gym to be active, but actually the easiest to do is have 10-minute walks here and there, and that can make a difference.

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