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‘Embrace the change:’ Chief of Surgery hangs up his scrubs

Posted Aug 28th, 2023

A man with white hair and wearing a blue golf shirt stands in a hospital courtyard smiling for the camera.

Dr. Ian Brown retires as Niagara Health's Chief of Surgery after a career filled with many successes and challenges. 

When Dr. Ian Brown finished his urology residency, he had his sights set on practising in his home province of Nova Scotia.

But it was the mid-1990s and Canada’s ocean playground was facing financial crisis. Hospitals were closing and his career prospects as a newly minted urologist seemed tenuous. Dr. Brown looked at options elsewhere and applied for a job the Greater Niagara General Hospital, now Niagara Health’s Niagara Falls hospital.

“Niagara Falls had one hospital and it didn’t seem like it would close,” Dr. Brown recalls. “Ontario also wasn’t in the same financial situation as Nova Scotia.”

Nova Scotia’s loss would be Niagara’s gain. Coming to Niagara Falls gave Dr. Brown the opportunity to establish a surgical practice and become engaged in the community. He also had the opportunity to shape healthcare at a higher level, becoming physician lead for urology for Niagara Health and helping to establish a regional model of care. He also helped launch a rapid assessment process for men who are at risk for prostate cancer, and taught undergraduate medical students and visiting urology residents.

On Sept. 1, five years after being appointed Chief of Surgery, Dr. Brown will call it a career. He looks back on his tenure as a physician who helped change healthcare in the region for the better and looks forward to what comes next.

What are your proudest career achievements?

Every five years or so, I tried to expand what I was doing and take on new challenges. In 2000, it was working with the regional urologists, Drs. Kapoor and Singal from Hamilton and Michael Garron Hospital to use a mentoring model to bring laparoscopic kidney surgery to Niagara. We started with kidneys and Niagara Health Urologist Dr. Tom Song continued to expand his skills and does laparoscopic radical prostatectomy as well.

Then it was my turn to be Chief of Urology before the new St. Catharines Site opened. Our department came together to build a regional urology service to better take care of our patients. Dr. Dianne Heritz then took on the challenge of implementation and fine-tuning the new program as Chief of Urology when the hospital opened.

In 2014, we were able to create the Prostate Cancer Diagnostic Assessment Program. Again, all of the urologists worked together with the goal of shortening the time from request for consultation to diagnosis and also ensure all patients had good counselling about their treatment options. That was done in collaboration with the Walker Family Cancer Centre Radiation Oncology team.

And then it was becoming Chief of Surgery in 2018. Three and a half years of it we spent dealing with COVID-19. The whole surgical department and the hospital, all departments, worked together to tackle the circumstances as they came up. It was challenging and an interesting learning experience.

The other great reward was becoming involved in the community. I coach kids’ soccer and did some hockey coaching. I had the opportunity to be the capital campaign chair for the YMCA and open the MacBain Community Centre in Niagara Falls. I've worked with charitable foundations, sat on the Y board, and for the last 12 years, have been part of the Motorcycle Ride for Dad, working with members of the Niagara Police Association to raise money that’s spent locally for awareness and research for prostate cancer.

And somehow in there, I managed to raise two great children, and my wife still hangs out with me. So it's all been pretty good.

Looking back, what are some of your fondest memories?

No. 1 is raising our family in Niagara and all the opportunities and friendships and interactions that's created for us. It's really been awesome. We came knowing nobody and we'll end up with a large network of friends.

The other part really is the people: the patients you see and you take care of, your colleagues, the staff, and a whole bunch of people you meet inside and outside the hospital.  It really creates a diverse friend base and strong group of mentors.

Another was going to get my first COVID-19 vaccination and walking into (the mass vaccination clinic at Seymour-Hannah Sports Centre) and seeing that a bunch of the surgical team and surgical staff were giving jabs and being part of the process. That was awesome to see folks stepping up.

The other part is learning from colleagues, the committees I sat on and our strong people in hospital and medical leadership. It really is about the people and your interactions.

"Some of the decisions you need to make are for the good of the system to take care of patients, a system which must continue long after you retire – one of Simone’s maxims."

What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome?

I don’t think I can say I have overcome specific challenges as much as been part of a team that helped manage some of the defining events in current healthcare. This would be the pandemic and the evolving situation with health human resources.

There was no manual for how to best prepare for the first waves of the pandemic. Everyone worked together across departments to prepare and implement pandemic measures and we got better with each subsequent wave.

The issue of health human resources continues to evolve. Niagara Health teams have been very resilient and dedicated in their roles, but we will not be able to do this alone. To solve this, we are going to need help from organizations outside of the hospital. How can our colleges, governments and licensing bodies expedite the arrival of new healthcare personnel while maintaining our high standards in Ontario and Canada? What do new models of care look like in and out of the hospital?

What’s next for you?

Our adult children live in Vancouver, so my wife, Tina, and I are going to move to be closer to family. We’re going to settle on Vancouver Island in a little place called Metchosin. My pet project is to renovate a small house there to be a high-efficiency, net zero energy home. That’s a whole new batch of learning for me.  It has nothing to do with medicine and allows me to focus on an important goal for our children’s future. With this done, I can decide what my next challenges might be.

What advice do you have for a physician just starting their career?

Make sure you plan your career around continuous education and learning. The one truth in life is that everything always changes, so embrace the change by never stopping the learning process.

If your journey takes you into leadership, know that this is not an easy path but it can be rewarding in many ways. You meet people whose education and perspective are quite different from that of a surgeon, which is learning in itself. You will also not be able to please everyone, which can sometimes make being in leadership a bit of a lonely place. But some of the decisions you need to make are for the good of the system to take care of patients, a system which must continue long after you retire – one of Simone’s maxims.

Niagara Health System