Resident Spotlight: Dr. Grace Qiao

Hey, Residents!

As mentioned in our last Resident Spotlight with Dr. Nicholas Monfries, we are doing a two-month special for July! And what better way to finish off the month than with our second Resident Spotlight in the negotiations series? For this interview, we chatted with Dr. Grace Qiao, a PGY-4 in Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences, who was one of the residents in this year’s RDBC Negotiations Team. Dr. Qiao’s involvement on the team was her first step in being involved with RDBC and resident wellbeing—what a big first step! Read on to find out why she decided to apply for the Negotiations Team, balancing residency and negotiations, her experience and more!

What inspired you to run for the RDBC Negotiations Team?

In my own junior years of residency, I felt as though I focused a lot of attention on being a learner, and a lot less on being an employee. As is the case for many residents, this was my first salaried job so I didn’t know much about having one. I knew so little about how to interpret my pay cheque, scheduling limitations, occupational health & safety issues, or what it even meant to be in a union.

I knew we had a Collective Agreement, but I thought it was a daunting document full of legalese (turns out it’s a lot more readable than I expected!). If I needed clarification about something, I asked a senior resident instead and learned about the “rules of work” mostly through the grapevine. If I was scheduled for too much call, or worked too many shifts, I accepted it as being the norm. I felt this attitude was so pervasive amongst my peers; we were inundated with so much material to learn, administrative hurdles, and personal life changes in our first months on the job.

This uncertainty and perceived lack of control were additional stressors, and I felt that there were productive and unproductive ways to cope. It may seem counterintuitive but I have found that channeling some of your precious time and energy to become engaged in issues that affect you, and to be able to effect change, is actually a good way to protect yourself against burnout.

When I received an email invitation blast for applications to be on the Negotiations Committee, I wasn’t sure I would be a good candidate for the job. I did not have any experience in labour negotiations, nor did I have a good grasp of our (then) current collective agreement. I was hesitant about representing the resident body across the table from government lawyers, hospital administrators, and bureaucrats. However, I did feel strongly about areas where I wanted to see changes – including compensation, assistance with costs associated with training/credentialing, resident safety & wellness, and call scheduling limitations/violations.

I was on vacation at the time and wrote my application while strapped in the passenger seat on a road trip, thinking that if I didn’t work on it right away, the opportunity and motivation would pass as is so often the case in our hectic lives. Thinking back, I’m so glad I threw my name in the hat rather than letting the email sink to the forgotten depths of my inbox.

On top of residency, the Negotiations Team kept incredibly busy for months with preparations and then the meetings themselves. How did you learn to balance residency and participating in negotiations, and keeping a balance in the long-term? 

I have my program director, rotation directors, preceptors, and co-residents to thank for allowing me to take time off clinical duties to participate in this. It required finagling with call schedules, missing weeks of certain rotations, and use of elective time on my part to make room for these preparatory meetings and full days-on-end of actual negotiations. I am incredibly fortunate that others in my program saw this as a worthwhile use of time and offered their unwavering support.

However, I learned that labour negotiation schedules often change with unanticipated delays and interruptions, as both parties exercise their due diligence. There were many late nights as the deadline for us to reach a new contract approached! Unable to make last second call changes, I sat at the table with our team through evenings, engaged in active negotiation, while carrying my pager. On a few occasions, I had to return to the hospital to see consults, only to head back to the table afterwards upon learning that discussions were still ongoing.

On our final night, I wrapped up my consults at midnight and made it back to the boardroom in time to witness the signing of our new collective agreement just after 1am. It was worth it just to see the culmination of our months of discussion, debate, drafting and re-drafting, then painstaking review of every article page by page. (That was also a personal confirmation for me that medicine was my calling, not law! Only half joking.)

I’m glad to have done this in my 3rd year of residency, as the time commitment would have been too much for me in 2nd year, just based on how my program is structured. I would advise any residents considering a commitment like this to ensure support from their program for the full duration of expected involvement, but also not to underestimate how accommodating people can be if you can communicate the value of your contribution (remember those CanMEDS competencies?).

Overall, how would you describe your experience on the Negotiations Team? What were some of the challenges, and what were some of the highlights?

Through this experience, I was incredibly encouraged to learn how many people were working behind the scenes to advocate for and step up to the bat for residents in BC. We have an incredible team of support staff under the leadership of a stalwart executive director at the union level, who understands the intricacies and challenges of our daily lives just as well if not better than I do. We have legal counsel who are eager to learn about the nature of our work and resolute in defending our best interests.

Honestly, I never knew how much effort went into things like… making sure we get paid for call even when we mess up the call submission forms, how grievances were handled when violations of the collective agreement occurred, or how hard they worked to address issues that I didn’t even know existed for other residents in the province.

Even on the other side of the bargaining table, it was clear that the individuals appointed to negotiate with us on behalf of the government were receptive to learning about the challenges of our work and tried to help us as much as they could within the constraints of the government mandate. Inevitably, things sometimes got heated. Several roadblocks were met. However, everyone remained firm & respectful. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the process and feel that a lot of pivotal groundwork has been achieved during this round of negotiations that will bolster our position for the next round.

Do you have any words of advice for future residents who will be sitting on the Negotiations Team for the 2022 bargaining year?

Don’t forget to lean on the experience and expertise of team members who have been through this process before. This will be especially important in the next round. You will be learning a lot from the legal team, RDBC support staff, and the executive director; and you will be teaching them a lot as well. As a lot of big changes can only be achieved through sequential steps, we have worked to lay the foundation to gather information and better understand some key issues that will be relevant for both sides in the coming years. It will be important to build on these to ultimately establish changes in policy that will protect and support residents that come after us.

Don’t forget the unique status of residents as employees; we are a transient work force. There are lots of positive changes that can be made to medical training that will affect us only for a short while; but they will affect generations of future residents for many more years to come. These residents will be our students, our colleagues, and our own doctors who will take care of us when we’re sick. As a member of the committee, you will have the dual role of educating AND learning from your peers and preceptors about some of the unique and changing challenges of this formative period of your career. You will discover the various ways residents, and the bodies that represent them, are different across the country.

Hopefully, you will remember that “paying it forward” goes beyond buying someone a coffee or lunch, gain insight into how to improve the ways we are training new doctors, and keep this awareness with you long after you leave residency behind.

author: Sasha Zalyvadna