It was on the other side of the world, in Rwanda, that I met Dr Diane Francoeur for the first time, via a Skype conversation. It was 10 p.m., I was going to speak to the president of the Federation of Medical Specialists of Quebec in a few seconds and I felt very small in my shoes. This shyness disappeared from the first seconds of the interview when I was immediately challenged by the fiery and sparkling words of Dr. Francoeur. I recognized myself in her vision of medicine immediately. In her proposals and in her experience, I even found there a kind of comfort and courage. Seeing a woman as determined as Dr. Francoeur tell you “if you need a break, take a break” I found it revolutionary. We receive all kinds of advice when we talk about leadership and professional development, yet we are too rarely told that it is more than okay to take a break to develop the personal and family spheres of our lives. In fact, that’s what will allow us to be a better doctor, a better leader. I hope that you will all be equally worried after discovering this exceptional woman.
Hello Dr. Francoeur, to start, could you tell us about your background in medicine?
I went to medicine as a challenge and I told myself that I would go with the first university that would accept me and that was Laval University. I was born in Gaspésie and I come from a very modest background, but I think that in Quebec anything is possible, but no one said it would be easy. After my residency in gyneco-obstetrics, I continued my fellowship at the University of Kentucky, which offered one of the best programs in my subspecialty in pediatric gynecology. It was with my professional association that I began to be very involved. I held several positions there, notably in finance and professional development. This is what led me by the needle to the presidency of the Federation of Medical Specialists of Quebec (FMSQ). At that time, I decided to start my MBA Health Care Management at Harvard. It’s a one-of-a-kind doctor-only program that combines public health and business. Being exposed to different medical training allowed me to realize that in Quebec we are truly pampered. Our medical schools are delivering results that other medical schools are very envious of.
When you say that “in Quebec everything is possible if you put in the effort, but no one said it would be easy”, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing the next generations of medicine?
I have a lot of concern for young people who have performance anxiety which is much greater than in my time. The students we select are bound with a thousand and one talents, but with the incessant competition that is imposed on them, I am afraid that we will lose their potential and damage the beauty of the profession. With the pace that is imposed on students and professionals, we are moving towards 35% burnout once on the job market. This is frightening and it will inevitably have repercussions on the well-being of health professionals.
How do you think you can meet this wellness challenge?
I find that when we talk about wellness, people often get it wrong and imagine you spending your time doing yoga; as you spend your evenings, and sometimes your nights studying.
For me, well-being starts with balance in personal life, love of the profession and teamwork. By dint of always being in competition, we forget that we don’t have to do everything alone. Learning to work in a team is essential, as much for the patients as for the system and also for our well-being. Then, my biggest chance is to have fallen madly in love with my field. The beauty of the profession is the relationship with our patients and the privilege of receiving their trust instantly. You have to stop at times and realize how lucky you are to see miracles every day, to be stimulated by incredible conversations with our patients. When we love what we do, time slips through our fingers to the point that if I were given the chance to do everything I did tomorrow, I would start again without hesitation.
Also, it’s important unplug from medicine and expose yourself to new realities. See how it goes elsewhere: among other health professionals, in other fields in the social sciences and elsewhere in the world. We must expose ourselves to the maximum of different realities not only to take a break, but also in order to be able to better understand the contexts of our patients, to ultimately serve them better.
Work-life-family balance is an important issue for many women in medicine, especially those who want to start a family without missing out on professional development opportunities. How did you manage to reach this delicate balance?
In medicine, many women will say to themselves “ah! I would have liked to do that! », but have to face the constraints of work-family balance and then get started later. Honestly, there is no single model. You have to give yourself time to find your own balance. It is certain that with pregnancy, we will slow down on the management of our career. Take this break if you need it to build your family, it should not be seen as wasted time. On the contrary, developing your leadership is also done through the support of your peers and their encouragement. Even being a mother means developing management skills that prepare us in a different way to assume future leadership roles.
What is the magic recipe for reconciling work and family? Let things go. Do not deprive yourself of a break for your family, then at the appropriate time, do not deprive yourself of getting involved and seizing the opportunities available to you. Believe me, opportunities are raining and you have to seize them. It’s important to be active, to make your voice prevail: that’s how we can change things and improve our profession.
I had 3 children, two of my children did acrobatic ski and when they were young, I had to manage a provincial acrobatic ski schedule, another at the national level and two gyneco-obstetrics schedules, mine and my husband’s. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Teamwork is so much more rewarding and facilitating, and it also applies to the personal spheres of our lives.
Do you think mentoring is important to the professional development of a young woman in medicine? Who were your mentors?
One of the most important things you can do for your career is find yourself mentors. And I insist on the plural, not one, but mentors. At the start of my career, my mentors were men because at that time there weren’t any women in authority around me yet. They regularly encouraged me to try new things, to seize new opportunities: “Go ahead, it’s going to be fun, you’re going to have new challenges!” Little by little, you end up growing your network and you access more and more different opportunities. I still speak regularly to my mentors, when I am faced with questions, talking with them allows me to go further in my thinking.
For me, mentoring is important. That’s why I try to be a mentor for a few residents. I always try to encourage them to try new experiences, when an opportunity presents itself to them, I say to them: “Go ahead and think after! “
Were there times when it was difficult for you to be heard? What do you do when you feel your voice is not heard?
It is very often difficult to be heard, especially if you are a woman who works in high-ranking institutions. When I started, I was surrounded by men. Even that one of the instances where I was in had the annoying habit of organizing videoconferences right at supper time. Finally, I let my kids scream while I was on the speakerphone. I did it on purpose just to make them realize that my reality is different from theirs, and that when you are a mother, supper time is not a good time for meetings.
To be heard, you have to be prepared and have allies. When you are prepared, you can see the challenges and issues that may come your way. We must continue to prepare for the various eventualities that may occur. Once you’ve analyzed all the possible scenarios, it’s time to go find allies and explain to them why they should support your proposition more than any other. We also develop this ability with experience.
Have you ever experienced impostor syndrome?
Ah, that, always! Especially women! And if we don’t have it, we try to make us feel it. In a conference on the glass ceiling, I tended to say that women also impose on themselves a glass coat, because in certain spheres, we have the impression that we are never welcomed. By doing some research, I even learned that there are biological and hormonal differences between women and men in the management of imposter syndrome. When we are not aware of this difference, some malicious people can take advantage of our impostor syndrome for their own interests.
How to get rid of it?
In my opinion, to get rid of the imposter syndrome, you have to have self-confidence and you have to arm yourself with the maximum of knowledge. Information is power. I remember a meeting with an important person in the world of health where I said to myself that I was going to succeed in having the upper hand during the meeting with information more up to date than his. And this is where having mentors is crucial. This allows you to search for and find the information you need, in addition to helping you take your thinking further based on their experiences.
What advice would you give to the new generation of women in medicine?
Start by getting a little involved and build your career as you go. I was more observant at first, then once there were openings, I didn’t hesitate to commit. If I could give advice, I would tell you:
- If you do something, it’s because it really appeals to you. You owe nothing to anyone other than yourself, so choose your involvement based on what you like.
- You don’t have to do everything and you don’t have to do it now. If you need a break, take it.
- When you’re ready to get involved: Go for it, go for it without hesitation. Opportunities are raining and I often say to my mentees: “Do it, you will think about it next!”
One of the main skills that you can develop for your life and career is resilience. In my field, losing a baby or a mom is extremely difficult. But you have to know how to sit honestly with families and support them through this difficult ordeal. Resilience is developed with experience, continuous professional development, but also with the management of a good work-life balance. There are times when having loved ones with you is what helps us get up. I believe that having a good life balance is the key to success. When I hire people, I like to know that their family, friends and work have a place in their lives. The people who impress me the most are those who manage to maintain a balance between these spheres.
Finally, if people reading this interview have to remember just one thing, what would it be?
You are fortunate to have chosen the most beautiful profession in the world. I really believe it. I’m still practicing and adjusting my schedule to stay in touch with other health professionals and my patients. Know that you have an incredible chance in Quebec to be so well trained. Be proud. Be passionate. Be on the move, go see what is done elsewhere. And above all, go for it!