Faculty Spotlight – Catherine O’Brien

Clinical Assistant Professor


Vancouver Island – Victoria General Hospital

Catherine O’Brien is a Clinical Assistant Professor with the UBC Department of Orthopaedics at Victoria General Hospital. She has a passion for teaching and providing compassionate patient-centered care that promotes engagement and empowerment in her patients’ health and recovery.

Can you share a little bit about your educational background and journey, and how you got to where you are today?

I am fortunate to live and work in Victoria, BC, on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples, working with the cohesive and dynamic orthopaedic group at RebalanceMD. My practice is focused on sports medicine and optimization of non-operative care for both acute and chronic musculoskeletal issues. I am involved in medical education several diverse roles through UBC’s Island Medical Program. I am also an Advisor for the undergraduate Flexible Enhanced Curriculum which runs longitudinally through their 4 years of training, as a Clinical skills instructor teaching musculoskeletal examination to first and second year students, and providing sessions during the surgical clerkship block on OR orientation and culture, as well as trauma simulation.
I decided at a young age that I was going to become a doctor, though upon reflection, I really didn’t have an appreciation for the breadth or diversity of what this could be. As a medical student, I enthusiastically explored a wide variety of fields to better appreciate my options. I was influenced by my own intrinsic growing interests, as well as by actively seeking to connect further with the most inspiring instructors we were exposed to. During these explorations, I had an experience that had an indelible impact on me while I was shadowing an orthopaedic surgeon. One of the patients we had just seen pulled me aside as the encounter concluded and gratefully conferred: “This surgeon is the best! They changed my life!”. It was not a one off occurrence, and the more time I spent around orthopaedics, the more I heard echoes of this theme repeated. It was a pretty compelling message, that orthopaedics had the potential to provide such positive and tangible improvements for patients on a regular basis. I was hooked! Coming from an elite athletic background also supported my evolving affinity to the orthopaedic community.  
After I completed my five-year Orthopaedics residency training at the University of British Columbia in 2012, I completed two fellowships; one in Sports Medicine/Arthroscopic Reconstruction of the Knee and Shoulder in Banff, AB (accredited through the University of Calgary), and a second in Orthopaedic Trauma, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Personal factors resulted in a move to Victoria, but the paucity of jobs in Canada when I completed my training led me to locum through numerous locations in BC, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories for several years. The experiences as a locum provided exposure to many different practices configurations, styles, and people, and provided the space to further reflect upon the features I ultimately wanted to incorporate into my life and career.
This time also provided the opportunity to become involved in undergraduate medical education. My passion for teaching in the years since graduating is something that I had not appreciated before. It has been through education endeavors that my faculty appointment and promotion have been possible.

What inspired you to work in orthopaedics, specifically comprehensive orthopaedics?

Where I am today is not where I would have planned as I went through my training, but I wouldn’t change a thing. There are moments, opportunities, and interactions that have changed and refined my interests, goals, and priorities, and I am tremendously grateful for how it has turned out. One of our resident rotations involved going to Prince George for two months. I did this during my third year, and after the grueling initial two years as a junior resident doing off service rotations, it completely reinvigorated me and reinforced that I was in the right place. The close-knit community, inclusion of a diversity of cases across the varied subspecialities, and particularly pragmatic approach required of a community practice were all aspects of the community practice that resonated strongly with me. My sights were set on pursuing something similar… and I even made a special request to go back up north for one more rotation!

What impact would you like to see your work have on patients, communities and society at large?

With personal connection being an important value, the impact I have had has typically been at a relatively local and individual level thus far. For my patients, I am passionate about providing compassionate patient-centered care that promotes engagement and empowerment in their health and recovery. I’m still evolving my portfolio of how I might influence communities and society more broadly, and how to integrate working collaboratively on projects/goals, and how connections could be leveraged for broader positive impact. In particular, I am interested in exploring integration across disciplines to incorporate and refine novel care strategies in musculoskeletal health. Optimizing non-operative care is a particular key interest.

I want my learners to take away a sense of the camaraderie that has always been a part of my orthopaedic and surgical experiences. I also want to help perpetuate the legacy of passion and excellence in musculoskeletal care that I have been fortunate to learn in my training, specifically through helping to influence medical learners to learn and maintain a high standard of musculoskeletal clinical skills into their future practices. I also want to promote and support the growing diversity and representation in medicine and orthopaedics.

What excites you most about your work? What are you most proud of?

Connecting with people and always learning are the two things that excite me the most about my work.  I am excited to still be evolving my career and practice, and always finding new things to explore and contribute.  With nearly two decades having passed since I entered medicine, that I am continuing to still appreciate the breadth and diversity of practices is tremendous and stimulating.

I am proud of my relationships with my team and colleagues, with my patients, and my students, and moreover, the associated feedback mechanisms indicating that these relationships are both important and impactful. Finding an excellent working group of colleagues was a key area of advice throughout my training, and I am grateful for the unique set-up offered at RebalanceMD in providing an environment where connection and learning are ideally facilitated.

What is one piece of advice that you’d like to give to current trainees?

a) Be gentle on yourself and remember that setbacks and disappointments are often the catalyst or springboard for something even better. Take time to appreciate and enjoy where you are right now. Identify what your own intrinsic goals and values are in life, and integrate that into your path.  
b) Work hard and demonstrate an interest in learning – it will inspire great teaching.  
c) I also want to recommend this podcast interview with Dr. Kelly Lefaivre: MEDamorphosis Podcast S3 E8: What Does an Orthopedic Surgeon Look Like Anyways?

When you’re not working, where can we find you?

One of my favourite things about being in Victoria is being able to commute to work by bike all year long as it facilitates regular exercise and outdoor time. Incorporating travel and exercise time in this way supports maximizing my time at home with my young children and partner, Rich. We enjoy being active outdoors, and take advantage of our proximity to the local beaches and lakes to get on the water kayaking; we also love skiing in the winter, though a bit of travel is required to make this happen. I still continue to explore some competitive interests playing kayak polo, and signing up for various multisport endurance events that enable that suffer-sort-of-fun.

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