Growing up the eldest of five gave Dr. Arlene King early experience caring for others, even when it wasn’t easy. “You get to be pretty tough when you have three younger brothers.”
She started out studying nursing, but wanted more of a challenge. She switched to general science and then did a medical degree at McMaster University.
Then King, who’s now 54, studied family medicine at the University of Calgary and worked as a family physician in the small northern Alberta town of Fairview. “I did about 25 years of medical practice in five years,” says King. In her large catchment, she dealt with everything from childbirth to heart disease to farm injuries.
She noticed just how many accidents and illnesses among her patients could be prevented — and she wanted to be part of that. “I felt I needed to do training in public health.”
So she did a masters in health sciences with a specialty in public health from the University of British Columbia. The degree taught her how to look at health not just from an individual perspective, but based on a larger population.
After graduation, she worked as associate medical officer of health for Burnaby, B.C. She did a few other jobs in B.C., including working for the province’s Centre for Disease Control before she landed in Ottawa working for Health Canada on infectious diseases. She acted as the technical lead for the agency during the SARS outbreak.
Last fall, after ten years in Ottawa, she was named chief medical officer for Ontario.
The job started out with a bang: That’s when H1N1 came along. She’s been kept so busy with the flu strain that she’s still being briefed on some aspects of her job.
Primarily, her job entails keeping Ontarians informed about current public health issues. So far, that’s meant speaking a lot about H1N1 to the media, other medical professionals and regular people in the province. She aids in communications between the Ontario Ministry of Health and the new Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion. She spends a lot of time talking with other chief medical officers — cities, provinces and Canada itself all have one — so that means lots of conference calls and face-to-face meetings.
King’s days start out with reading the paper on the subway: She needs to know what’s going on in public health in the news. She also reads a lot of medical journals, particularly to find out the latest in infectious diseases. Then, like many of us, she’s on email most of the day, and in meetings, talking about health to anyone who needs to know.