Choosing Your Medical Specialty: Occupational Medicine

June 13, 2022 | Claire Gagné


Occupational medicine physicians have a unique task: Assess and manage health conditions that come up as a result of — or are aggravated by — work.

There are many possibilities when it comes to choosing your medical specialization and there's a lot to consider. The “Choosing Your Medical Specialty" series helps you learn more about each specialty and explore which one best matches your values, interests, and abilities.

Occupational medicine physicians have a unique task: Assess and manage health conditions that come up as a result of — or are aggravated by — work.

These conditions "can range from physical injuries to occupational diseases like work-related asthma, dermatitis, toxic exposures and even cancer," explains Dr. Aaron Thompson, a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health and the Medical Director, Occupational Disease at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

"We also address health effects from harmful environmental exposures," says Thompson, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

The occupational physician's job is to help diagnose conditions and determine the causes, along with advising on the appropriate filing of workers' compensation claims and helping people get back to work in a timely and appropriate manner. Here's what you need to know about working in occupational medicine.

What is a typical day like as an occupational medicine physician?

There can be quite a range of how you spend your time in occupational medicine, and many physicians perform more than one role in a day.

For example, you can work in a clinic where you see patients with work-related injuries and diseases. You can also work in the occupational health department of a company, helping the business ensure the workplace is safe. Another option is to work for a provincial or federal government, with positions with the Ministry of Labour, Public Health, or Workers Compensation Boards.

"I often will do multiple things in a day, such as do a clinic at the hospital in the morning and then walk over to the WSIB for meetings in the afternoon or up to the university to give a lecture," Thompson says.

What are the rewards of working in occupational medicine?

Learning about the different industries and ways people work — and how important people's work lives are to them — is part of what makes the job particularly interesting, says Thompson.

"It might be a welder talking about how they prep and do their welds and the hazards they encounter on a daily basis," he explains. "Or a miner talking about the experience of being underground, and all the interesting tools they use and how they go about their work. Or an artist who uses different pigments containing solvents and heavy metals."

Occupational medicine also involves a lot of rewarding mental work, as you evaluate the symptoms, the work routines and the exposures that might be contributing to a patient's health concern.

There are also financial rewards. "The nature of the work is such that it provides multiple income streams that lends a great deal of financial stability while maintaining flexible working hours and control of one's own schedule," says Thompson.

What are the challenges of occupational medicine?

Cases in occupational medicine can be quite complex, says Thompson. "Tying the exposure to the outcome is a scholarly activity requiring excellent literature review skills and critical appraisal," he explains. You also need to navigate the complex medical and legal landscapes with multiple factors playing a role in recovery and being able to return to work successfully.

"You need to be ever cognizant of social, psychological, environmental, cultural, genetic, behavioural, and political factors," says Thompson.

Who is a good fit for this specialty?

Being a successful occupational physician goes beyond being a good doctor. "For a physician to have the necessary skills to effectively practice occupational medicine, they must be a confident leader, a proficient scholar and be effective in all verbal and written communication with patients and other stakeholders," says Thompson.

If you think you can be a strong advocate for workers and work collaboratively with stakeholders, as well as have a keen interest in understanding workplace intricacies, this could be a good specialty for you.

Is there a lot of opportunity in this field?

Thompson says occupational medicine physicians are in high demand. "In stark contrast to many other industrialized countries, Canada has a remarkably few Occupational Medicine Specialist (FRCPC) physicians," he says. There are plenty of opportunities for occupational medicine in niche fields, like oil and gas, aerospace, or in the government, as well as clinical practice.

You can also specialize in an area of interest. In his clinical practice, for example, Thompson mainly sees patients for toxicology issues concerning things like lead, arsenic and mercury exposures, or environmental exposures like mold.

Because medical students and residents rarely get exposure to occupational medicine in their training, Thompson says he encourages any students or residents who are wondering about the field to reach out to someone in the speciality to find out more.

"As an occupational physician, you get the opportunity to not only help people get better from their specific diagnosis, but you help them remain actively employed in whatever capacity possible which ultimately has a tremendous impact on their and their family members' quality of life," he says.

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This article originally appeared on the RBC Healthcare - Advice & Learning