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Goal-getter: Emergency medicine chief named academic lead for McMaster medical school

Posted Jan 31st, 2024

We are Niagara Health is a series of stories that celebrates the incredible people working and volunteering in our organization and how they make a difference in the lives of patients and coworkers every day.

Dr. Rafi Setrak headshot

Dr. Rafi Setrak, Niagara Health's Regional Chief of Emergency Medicine, has been appointed Academic Lead of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine Niagara Regional Campus.

Dr. Rafi Setrak won’t tell you the milestones marking his career trajectory as an emergency medicine physician and educator are his dreams come true.

But he will tell you they’re goals he intended to achieve.

The distinction is important to Dr. Setrak, Niagara Health’s Regional Chief of Emergency Medicine.

“Dreams are emotional. Goals are a plan,” Dr. Setrak says. “Following your dreams is a big thing in Western Culture and I’m all for it. Goals, you quantify and build a roadmap to. Goals are alive. They evolve. The goals I have today are not the same goals I had 10 years ago; they’re not the same goals I had 20 years ago or 30 years ago. Dreams are static.”

That’s why his latest accomplishment – being named Niagara Health Academic Lead of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine Niagara Regional Campus – falls comfortably into Dr. Setrak’s ‘Goals Achieved’ column.

Thirty years ago, he was finishing his medical degree at Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad, Iraq, having earned the Dean’s Honour Award and being named National Baccalaureate in the process. That’s when Dr. Setrak’s “devotion to education” took shape.

Then, 17 years ago in 2007, he made the choice to come to Niagara Health via Newfoundland, where he practised both emergency and rural medicine.

He was drawn to Niagara Health for his future home’s proximity to his parents in Richmond Hill. The weather in Canada’s tender fruit belt helped, too. But it was primarily the opening of a McMaster medical campus in 2008, followed by the new St. Catharines hospital in 2013, that sealed the deal.

“It comes from a place of gratitude and responsibility. Someone 30 years ago took the time to teach me, so it’s my turn to teach people so we can keep going (in medicine).”

After completing a one-year residency in emergency medicine in 2006, he took his post at Niagara Health. He also began carving out a career path at McMaster, running the emergency medicine clerkship, then being named clinical education co-ordinator and running all clerkships. Dr. Setrak worked his way up to assistant clinical professor, winning awards for his ability to teach future doctors.

When Dr. Han-Oh Chung’s term as academic lead ended late last year, the position was a natural progression for Dr. Setrak.

'A strong history in academic leadership'

“It comes from a place of gratitude and responsibility,” he says. “Someone 30 years ago took the time to teach me, so it’s my turn to teach people so we can keep going (in medicine).”

In the role of academic lead, Dr. Setrak liaises between the medical school and Niagara Health, helping to drive overarching partnership strategies, including educating doctors who will stay in the community and maintaining the prestige of having a medical campus here. He’ll also make sure the smaller details, such as scheduling and student orientation, don’t get overlooked.

“He has a strong history in academic leadership with the campus and it’s wonderful to welcome him back to leadership,” says Dr. Amanda Bell, Regional Assistant Dean, Niagara Regional Campus. “Dr. Setrak has a keen understanding of the importance of medical education in the delivery of safe and effective patient care and in training the next generation of physicians in Niagara. He is dedicated to positive learner experience and we look forward to his collaboration with Niagara Health to ensure a strong, safe and enjoyable learning environment for our trainees.” 

Dr. Setrak most looks forward to ensuring students learn about the new hospital information system (HIS) that will see the streamlining and digitization of patient records across Niagara Health when it’s implemented later this year, “so from Day 1, medical learners are a functional part of the hospital.”

He will do all this while maintaining his role as Regional Chief of Emergency Medicine and taking care of patients in Niagara Health’s busy emergency departments.

“My plate is full. It’s awesome,” he says. “What a great privilege and pleasure to have a full plate.”

It does all add up to being the proverbial Canadian dream, Dr. Setrak notes. It’s one made possible by a family comprised of generations of immigrants, whose journey toward Canada started in Armenia before his grandfather fled as a refugee to Iraq in the early 1900s. Another branch on his family tree traces back to Lebanon, but all paths led to Canada after he graduated from medical school.

Dr. Setrak credits his family, including his wife and children, for supporting him as he achieved his goals. Everyone on the teams he works with at Niagara Health helped, too.

“It’s about an industrious team that holds together and that replicates,” he says. “This is not me, this is us.”

In achieving his goals so far, Dr. Setrak says he’s ultimately working toward one of those long-held, static dreams. It’s for his children to write the ending to his family’s migration story in Canada.

“That’s a dream – that my kids have finally made it home.”

Niagara Health System