A behind-the-scenes peek at being CMA president

By Roger Collier | CMAJ | Aug. 17, 2016

You meet many amazing people and learn much about the medical profession as CMA president, according to Dr. Cindy Forbes. You will also gain experience and confidence in your public speaking skills. (All photos courtesy of CMA.)

There are many kinds of busy. There is exam-week busy. There is two-jobs-and-four-kids busy. And then there is CMA-president busy.

“There were months when I was home only three or four days,” said Dr. Cindy Forbes, who will soon finish her year-long stint as president of the Canadian Medical Association.

“When can I get home and wash the clothes in my suitcase?” Forbes recalled thinking at times, with a laugh. “I’m tired of these clothes!”

Yes, there will be laundry issues if you become CMA president, but Forbes isn’t really complaining. The travel was extensive, without question. Whitehorse one week, Kingston the next; a meeting to attend in Manitoba, a speech to give in Nova Scotia; another trip across Canada, a brief hop to Ireland — one loses all sense of the wheres and whens after a while. But Forbes didn’t mind the travel. In fact, she enjoyed it. All that uninterrupted time on planes allowed her to get a lot of work done.

It is a wonderful experience from a personal growth point of view, but also a wonderful opportunity for people who see the need for change and feel they can bring something to the table to improve the health of Canadians or improve the ability of physicians to look after patients.

So, if you are a Canadian doctor with a smidge of interest in one day leading the CMA, be forewarned: you will be very, very busy if elected president. You will spend much time away from your practice, patients and family. But it’s worth it, said Forbes.

You will have an incredible opportunity to meet passionate, motivated people who are doing amazing things, in medicine and other professions. “It is a wonderful experience from a personal growth point of view, but also a wonderful opportunity for people who see the need for change and feel they can bring something to the table to improve the health of Canadians or improve the ability of physicians to look after patients.”

Want to become CMA president one day? Hope you enjoy travel, because you will be spending a lot of time on planes. You will meet many people, give many speeches and attend many meetings.

There are other perks to being CMA president, but before we get to those let’s stay on busyness for a moment. Because in addition to all her presidential responsibilities — which included up to four big events any given week — Forbes also took on another job: wedding planner. One of her daughters, Kristie, tied the knot in July, and Forbes didn’t let her full schedule stop her from staying involved.

So there were stacks of decorations next to piles of paperwork on the counter of her Nova Scotia kitchen. She would find time between meetings to answer texts with questions about colours and flowers, or to jump on FaceTime to offer input during dress fittings. Forbes was even able to turn a meeting with Doctors Nova Scotia into a reconnaissance mission. The location of the meeting — Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa in Digby, Nova Scotia — also happened to be the wedding venue.

“I ran around and took photos. I snuck in before dinner and took pictures of the table settings. I met with the coordinator,” said Forbes. “I was able to multitask.”

Dr. Cindy Forbes and her husband, Greg Forbes, attend the wedding of their daughter, Kristie, in July of this year. Her other daughter, Andrea, was married last summer, when Forbes was president-elect of CMA.

The one thing Forbes’ hectic schedule did cut into, much to her chagrin, was her exercise routine. Normally, she would run a few times a week and, during summer, often play golf or go kayaking. Though she tried to get in a run whenever possible over the past year, breaks were sometimes hard to find between the early-morning breakfast meetings and the late-evening dinner meetings. “Sometimes I just couldn’t fit it in my schedule, so that part was difficult for me. I don’t like hotel gyms, but resorted to that a few times. But I was less active than I would normally be.”

There were a few other challenges during the year. The learning curve was steep, and her first few weeks on the job — in an already-busy September that was also leading up to a federal election — were a little overwhelming, said Forbes. As someone who likes to over-prepare for speeches and meetings, Forbes had to adjust how she prepared, relying more on others for help, because of the limited time between events. And though she enjoyed meeting so many people during her year as CMA president, Forbes had to find ways to keep track of all the names.

“I won’t pretend that I’m great with names,” said Forbes. “But I do have ways of remembering them.” Keeping up on politics helped her remember the names of members of Parliament, senators, health ministers and other politicians. After conversations with physicians, she would often jot down their names. Following doctors on Twitter also proved helpful. “When I finally met them in person, I felt like I had already met them.”

One drawback to the busy life of a CMA president: less time for sports and exercise. Usually, Dr. Cindy Forbes stays very active, and though she tried to sneak runs in whenever possible when travelling, her schedule was often too full.

Okay, enough with the challenges. Let’s get to the perks. One major highlight was attending the first Speech from the Throne of the new Liberal federal government. Forbes had the sense she was present at a moment that was more than just important; it was historic. During the reception after the speech, she introduced herself to cabinet ministers and had many great conversations — conversations that, in some cases, marked the beginning of productive relationships. Forbes would learn that the ears of politicians often perked up when they discovered she was president of the CMA.

“Early on in this role, I realized the sense of respect you get when introduced as the president of this organization is based on the respect people have for their own physicians and the profession in general. That was never lost on me,” said Forbes. “I found it a very rewarding part of this role to make sure the voice of physicians was reaching key decision-makers.”

I’ll be heading back to my practice in September, but I won’t see things the same way that I did before with the day-to-day challenges. I will see them as pieces of bigger issues that need to be addressed on many different levels.

Being CMA president also provided Forbes with a unique opportunity to gain a sense of what was happening in her profession across the entire country. In just one year, she was able to speak with physicians in every province, as well as most provincial ministers of health. It was a crash course in big-picture thinking.

“There are so many similarities to what physicians are thinking and experiencing as far as the health system is concerned, and what’s happening in general in society,” she said. “When you start to think of things outside your normal daily experience, you feel more of a responsibility to try to change things at that level. I’ll be heading back to my practice in September, but I won’t see things the same way that I did before with the day-to-day challenges. I will see them as pieces of bigger issues that need to be addressed on many different levels.”

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