At an early age, Penticton anesthesiologist Dr Michelle Scheepers started thinking ahead. That may be why she’s so determined to get surgical patients to do the same, planning for an optimal outcome.
Born to a general surgeon and a medical office assistant in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa, Dr Scheepers took a gap year between high school and university in 1997 to do a student exchange in small-town Northern Ontario, the furthest thing she could imagine from her subtropical home. She stayed with a doctor’s family, who became lifelong friends, traveled the country, and fell in love with it. Returning home that same year, she started planning her return to Canada. When she married a South African Military Defence Force pilot, he signed on for her resettlement scheme as well.
Trained at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, S.A., with an internship at Universitas Hospital Complex in Bloemfontein in 2011, Dr Scheepers did the required one-year stint at a community hospital before moving with her husband and two children to Summerland in 2014. They settled into the rural life they’d imagined – Andre Scheepers began running an apple orchard and Dr Scheepers became an anesthesiologist in Penticton. The family enjoys all kinds of outdoor pursuits, from paddle-boarding and swimming to kids’ hockey.
Dr Scheepers, who is also a UBC clinical instructor, was drawn to anesthesiology because of the immediacy and teamwork involved, as well as the many facets of medicine it entails, from pharmacology to pain control.
“It’s an incredibly rewarding part of someone’s health journey,” she explains, noting that for many patients, surgery is a major life event. As such, she believes they do best when they’re well-prepared.
Dr Scheepers first got involved with quality improvement in 2018 in an effort to help create a more effective health care system. Over the last two years, she’s taken part in a number of QI initiatives.
Since 2019, as part of the Penticton Regional Hospital team, Dr Scheepers has worked with the Surgical Patient Optimization Collaborative (SPOC) that’s helping 14 multi-disciplinary hospital teams across BC to improve their pre-habilitation practices. This collaborative is funded by the SSC as part of its goal to transform care delivery.
Before a patient’s surgery, each health care member on an elective surgical patient’s team conducts a pre-operative screening. “The team identifies health issues that can impact surgical outcomes and works with patients to optimize them,” Dr Scheepers says. “It helps the patient to go into the surgery as healthy as possible, which, in turn, helps them recover much faster.”
In addition to her work in pre-habilitation with the SSC, Dr Scheepers partnered with Interior Health and Curatio Networks in 2020 to create a PQI pilot program that used remote monitoring technology to guide more than 20 hip and knee replacement candidates through their pre-habilitation process, helping them prepare for surgery by, for example, managing their blood pressure. The private social network application, Stronger Together, was downloaded onto patients’ smartphones, providing them with content tailored to their needs by their health care team. It allowed self- and post-op monitoring, and facilitated private discussions between surgery candidates. Dr Scheepers believes this tool may wind up having many useful remote care applications, well beyond pre-habilitation.
Assisted by a summer student and funded by the BC Patient Safety Quality Council (BCPSQC), she also developed a pre-habilitation website for Penticton-area patients.
These efforts reflect her determination to re-imagine systems so they better serve all patients, no matter what their circumstances.
“The social determinants of health are certainly no less important in Canada than they were in South Africa,” Dr Scheepers explains. “A lot of our communities struggle with access to health care and clean water.”
To ensure that she realizes her goals of systems transformation, Dr Scheepers continues to further her education. She graduated from the BCPSQC Clinical Quality Academy and the UBC Sauder Physician Leadership program in 2018; the IHI Improvement Advisor Program in 2021, and she’s an MBA “in progress” at Royal Roads University.
Healthcare is a massive, complex machine, she says: “To be an effective change management agent, I think you need to better understand the organizations within it.”