Not by Default: Family Medicine as a Calling

Dr. Michael Malek believes being a family physician is a calling, a conscious choice that’s not to be made lightly. Following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. David Malek, the younger Dr. Malek recalls tagging along on his father’s hospital rounds, witnessing his strong devotion to his patients. 

He also remembers his father’s hard work – the long evenings spent working on charts and the other work that went “above and beyond”. “I grew up in that atmosphere and it was the first spark for heading in that same direction,” says Dr. Malek.

Today he cares for a sizeable roster of patients – including many elderly and complex patients – in hospital and in his office. He also does house calls when needed and provides end-of-life care in patients’ homes and in hospice. For upwards of 20 years, he’s been an attending physician in a long-term care facility.

Dr. Michael Malek
And his love of family medicine goes even further. The busy physician is also a committed teacher and, as part of The Ottawa Hospital Academic Family Health Team, provides teaching and clinical supervision to many residents and medical students. Says Dr. Malek, “I remember being in their shoes and I really enjoy that aspect of giving back.”

Learning from the Learners

Described by one student as a role model who “inspires and promotes continuous support of thought, learning, growth”, Dr. Malek is quick to point out that students and residents are not the only learners in these arrangements. “Sometimes I see their interactions with my patients – some I’ve known for 20 years now – and I learn things about my patients,” says Dr. Malek, who describes it as “invigorating” seeing the development of residents and their transition in to practice.

Dr. Malek notes that being an educator contributes to an openness to learning and staying up to date on evidence-based developments in medicine. That ongoing desire for learning is key, he says, to improving practice – he cites avoiding “frivolous” testing as an example –  and to caring for patients who, more than ever, tend to research their conditions before even seeing a doctor. 

Striking a Balance

Dr. Malek is attentive to the dangers of burnout and adamant that emerging family physicians understand how to minimize this risk. “I tell them it’s ‘life-work’ balance, that ‘life’ comes first,” he says. “Work is very important – we’re passionate and we love what we do, but it’s what’s going on in our personal lives that really drives us. If you don’t have the energy to devote to your personal life, then the work will lose its meaning.”

In today’s challenging, sometimes negative, environment for doctors, Dr. Malek says his work in family medicine remains hugely meaningful. “When you have people thanking you for the help you’ve provided, you feel you’re actually making a difference in people’s lives and a lot of that negativity falls to the wayside.”

“There’s always going to be a strong need for family medicine – for physicians advocating for their patients, being there for their patients and wearing multiple hats,” says Dr. Malek. “That has to be a strong part of their being. [Family medicine] can’t be a choice by default.”