Waterloo-Wellington doctors honoured for their leadership and patient care

Thursday, November 18, 2021

CAMBRIDGE, ELORA, and GUELPH, November 18, 2021 – Three family doctors from the Waterloo-Wellington region have been recognized for their community and medical leadership by the Ontario College of Family Physicians.

Elora’s Dr. Sarah Gower has been named the 2021 Regional Family Physician of the Year for the region of Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brant and Waterloo Wellington. The Award is presented annually to seven Ontario family doctors – one from each region of the province – to recognize exemplary care to patients and contributions to excellence in family medicine.

Dr. Sharon Bal of Cambridge and Dr. Andrea Chittle of Guelph are each being honoured with a 2021 Award of Excellence. The College of Family Physicians of Canada Awards of Excellence recognize family doctors for exceptional achievement in the specialty of family medicine in the past 24 months. Nominations come from peers or the public to the provincial chapter of which the nominee is a member.

“Through their leadership and passion for patient care and advocacy, whether it be for women’s health, or advancing health system improvements and equity in medicine, or ensuring quality care for vulnerable populations, Dr. Gower, Dr. Bal, and Dr. Chittle have demonstrated their commitment to enhancing health care in the Waterloo-Wellington Region,” said Dr. Elizabeth Muggah, OCFP President. “These family doctors are highly respected and valued by their colleagues, patients, students and community partners, and I am delighted to acknowledge their outstanding accomplishments.”

The Awards were presented virtually at the OCFP Awards Ceremony on November 10, 2021. A list of all awardees is posted on the OCFP’s website.

Dr. Sarah Gower, Regional Family Physician of the Year – A gifted leader and tireless advocate for women’s health

For over 20 years, Dr. Sarah Gower has been practising comprehensive family medicine that includes office care, obstetrics, palliative care, and in-patient care. Initially working in many small communities across Northern and rural Ontario, she also spent a few years teaching at Queen’s University before starting her practice in Elora in 2009. At McMaster University where she is assistant clinical professor, she mentors residents and medical students in family medicine and obstetrics. A recent learner cites Dr. Gower’s positive attitude, passion for teaching, and incredible sense of calm in the face of chaos: “It was easy for me to tell she had delivered hundreds of babies.”

Dr. Gower is a strong public voice, including on social media, advocating for physicians and patients and their needs around rural obstetrical care and perinatal loss. She is the incoming chair of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada Maternal/Newborn Committee and sits on Health Quality Ontario’s Advisory Committee for “Early Pregnancy Complications and Loss Quality Standard.” She was recognized with an inaugural Canadian Women in Medicine “Woman of Inspiration” award in 2019 for her unique work in mentoring bereaved physician mothers. Dr. Gower recently completed a Master of Science in Population Medicine (Epidemiology) at the University of Guelph. She looked at care for patients experiencing pregnancy after stillbirth and knowledge translation to rural primary care providers, with the goal to create a national stillbirth plan.

Dr. Gower is leading system change at a practical level in her community. As Chair of the Rural Wellington Ontario Health Team working group, she is focused on ensuring connected, comprehensive care in the region. In March and April this year, with her colleagues she piloted an innovative drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Elora that will continue to operate for both influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations. She is spearheading a new Rural Wellington Residential Hospice, to address an identified gap in the local healthcare system.

“Dr. Gower has a terrific ability to communicate her medical knowledge to people of all ages in a way that helps even her youngest patients understand that they are making informed choices about their own health,” said Lisa Dalrymple, a mother of three who has been Dr. Gower’s patient for over 12 years. “I often feel, when I come out of an appointment with Sarah, that I have learned about my condition and wellbeing and that I have the knowledge to move forward with a course of action to better my own health.”

Dr. Sharon Bal, Award of Excellence – Developing a responsive, integrated health system to ensure patients have a better care experience and better care outcomes

Dr. Sharon Bal is no stranger to rolling up her sleeves to make a difference. From the early days of proposal development, Dr. Bal has been actively involved in the design and implementation of the Cambridge North Dumfries Ontario Health Team (OHT). For the past several years, she has been working to engage her physician colleagues and develop strong partnerships across various sectors to promote the importance of creating one seamless, integrated healthcare team to improve community care. In the year leading up to the creation of the OHT, Dr. Bal rallied colleagues to implement best practices and support surge planning – all to establish a more responsive primary care system. Her strong person-centered, team approach has made her a trusted leader in Waterloo-Wellington’s evolving system.

Dr. Bal was tapped by Ontario Health to oversee the local COVID-19 response in long-term care and retirement homes. She has fearlessly entered facilities considered destabilized and unsafe, as needed to assess residents and help ensure their clinical needs could be met – no doubt making a difference to outcomes in these homes and saving lives. As the primary care contact for the region’s COVID-19 response, Dr. Bal has advocated for primary care involvement in testing and vaccination. She also ensured populations with the greatest vulnerabilities were not overlooked, working to support Indigenous community-led efforts around testing and vaccines, as well as collaborating with outreach workers to support local shelters, including during outbreaks.

A passionate advocate for accessibility to quality care for vulnerable populations, Dr. Bal also works to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in medicine. As co-chair of OMA Women, gender pay gap, ally-ship, women in leadership and mentoring of early-career women physicians are among the topics addressed in committee outreach and programs.

“As we speak about how to improve care, Dr. Bal’s passion makes it real,” said Patrick Gaskin, President & CEO, Cambridge Memorial Hospital. “She speaks of her patients’ experiences and how we, by working together, can improve them. Her energy, enthusiasm and commitment will be one of the driving forces for the incredible work our Ontario Health Team will continue to do.”