Department Spotlight: Dr. Jennifer Johnson

Graduate Name: Jennifer K. Johnson

Supervisor(s): Dr. Amanda Terry and Dr. Evelyn Vingilis

Thesis Title: The Health Experiences of Long-haul Truck Drivers and Their Relationship with Their Primary Care Provider


Tell me a little about you.

My name is Jennifer Johnson.  I am a family physician in Penetanguishene, Ontario.  My husband is an emergency doctor, and we have three children and a mini-Australian shepherd.  We enjoy living on Georgian Bay because it is peaceful and scenic with access to many recreational activities we enjoy such as  kayaking and skiing.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Hamilton and raised in Ancaster, Ontario. My parents moved to this area from northern Minnesota when my father accepted a faculty position at McMaster University

What degree(s) do you have, and from what universities?

I have an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Queen’s University. I received my medical degree from McMaster University and did my residency in family medicine at the University of Calgary.

Where do you practice medicine and in what scope? What are your research interests?

I have a family practice in Penetanguishene; a small town on the shores of southern Georgian Bay.  I  care for in-patients at The Georgian Bay General Hospital and like most family physicians in my community, do home visits and palliative care for my patients. I am also involved in teaching both family medicine residents and medical students during their placements in our community.

My research interests include looking at how different occupations (including retirement) impact the health of patients seen in primary care. This interest extends to the health of family physicians, especially in this era of a global pandemic.

I am also curious about health systems, primary care workforce, and highway safety.  Lastly, I am interested in the effects of overscreening, overdiagnosis and overtreatment on patients. I could go on. There is so much one could study in family medicine.

Why did you choose to pursue a MCISc/PhD in the Department of Family Medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry?

I was primarily interested in research when I applied to the MClSc program. Prior to this, while my children were young, all my work was entirely clinical - in the hospital, office and ER. However, after 20 years I was at a point in my career where I really wanted to learn how to answer some of the questions emerging from my family practice.

Is there an experience of your time in the program that stands out for you, an “ah hah” moment?

There were many realizations gained during my studies at Western University, but what really resonated with me was when we were studying the patient-physician relationship and looking deeply at the person-in-the-patient and the person-in-the-physician. I realized that many aspects of our humanity, other than our knowledge, are valuable and imperative to doing good work as family physicians. This led to a greater understanding of the importance of family physicians to patients and to the healthcare system and helped me really value my discipline. I am a strong advocate for family medicine now. 

How do the writings and the person of Dr. Ian McWhinney influence your work in your career overall?

I value being a generalist.  I try to be conscious of bringing my whole self to encounters with patients. From McWhinney's writings, I now recognize occasions when I need to be brave as a family physician- to move towards a patient’s suffering, not away from it.  I have learned that being present with a patient, even in uncomfortable situations not only helps the patient but also helps me as their family physician. McWhinney also wrote that being a family physician is a difficult job, and that self-compassion and self-care are important practices for any physician. I couldn’t agree more.

What has been your greatest experience to date in your teaching / research career?

My greatest experience was learning patient centred care though this program, applying it to my patients of 20 years and observing how positively they responded to being more deeply known and understood. There is definitely more trust, mutual respect and enjoyment of my relationships with my patients now.

What are your thoughts about the patient-centred clinical method as it relates to teaching, research and clinical practice?

I learned this method for the first time in the MClSc program.  It is an excellent method for gaining better understanding of our patients, their families and their context, for improving compliance with tests and treatments and for deepening the patient-physician relationship.  I remind myself of the components from time to time because they are so important.

What MClSc / PhD learning have you incorporated into your family medicine practice as a result of the program?

The MClSc program has given me the tools to better understand and care for my patients and to study family medicine in all its complexity. I have incorporated more patient centred care and self-reflection in my practice. I also use some of the methods for giving feedback to medical students that I learned in the MClSc program. Lastly, I have carved out some time to participate in primary care research which is definitely a passion now.

Tell us about your experience in developing your research idea for your thesis / RP/ME.

I developed the idea of researching the health of long-haul truck drivers from my family practice.  One of my patients who works as a long-haul truck driver was having difficulty coping with a new health problem while working far from home. Trying to treat, support and reassess my patient for his illness made me realize how difficult it is to achieve and maintain good health as a long-haul truck driver. I was also concerned for the public who were sharing the highway with this man because he did not have optimal health. For me, this topic really reflected two important roles of family physicians; caring for individual patients and having responsibilities to public health. My patient inspired me to try to better understand the health challenges of long-haul truck drivers, to explore their access to their family physician or nurse practitioner, and to determine if other primary care providers had experienced similar challenges caring for patients who are long-haul truck drivers.

Please describe the role of your supervisor in completing your thesis work, RP / ME.

My two supervisors were encouraging, supportive and enthusiastic during the entire 2 years we worked together. They helped me design the research, interpret the data, analyse the results and edit my thesis document. It was a great learning experience. Their joy in doing research was infectious. They both remain remarkable mentors.

Has your teaching / research changed as a result of the MClSc / PhD program?

Yes. I am happy to have the opportunity to remain connected to the Department of Family Medicine at Western University and will hopefully be working with and continuing to learn from the exceptional teachers and researchers I met there during my studies.

What would you consider the single most important benefit of the MClSc / PhD program?

I really value the knowledge of research methods that I gained through this program and the opportunity to complete a research study under the supervision of accomplished primary care researchers.

Anything further you would like to add or share?

I would add that for me, the theoretical foundations and advanced patient-centred method courses, grounded in philosophy and psychology, led to greater self-knowledge and deeper understanding of the profound aspects of the patient-physician relationship. Non-quantifiable aspects such as trust, hope, loss are intuitively experienced by family physicians when we care for our patients, but until I enrolled in this program these important parts of my work were unrecognized. Now I understand that being there for our patients over time enhances healing and is sometimes all we can offer them when there is no cure.