Board Award Board Updates Council Award

Helping Newcomers Find a Home for Their Health 

Reading time: 4 minutes
Dr. Sundareswaran

Dr. Madura Sundareswaran (Photo credit: Naomi Lucienne)

Board recognizes work of Peterborough family doctor  

By Mark Sampson

Note: Following the approval of new governance terminology at our December 2023 Board of Directors (formerly Council) meeting, the CPSO Council Award is now known as the CPSO Board Award

For decades, the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of St. James Town has been a starting place for many newcomers – including refugees – arriving to Canada and looking to kickstart a better life. Its streets, diners, grocery stands and apartment complexes teem with people speaking such languages as Tamil, Polish, Pashto, Urdu, Ukrainian and Hindi, with everyone striving toward a brighter future for themselves and their families. One might call it a focal point of Canadian multiculturalism. 

It’s also where our latest CPSO Board Award recipient, Dr. Madura Sundareswaran, grew up. She describes being raised in a “it takes a village”-type environment, with family friends living on every floor.

Still, that sense of community couldn’t always hide the trauma that many of the refugees living in the neighbourhood were grappling with. Dr. Sundareswaran’s parents never talked about their own experiences in war-torn Sri Lanka; and she says that, in hindsight, post-traumatic stress would help to explain the mental health issues that many in the refugee community around her were going through. And while she and her family left St. James Town in 1997, it was the place that laid the foundation of Dr. Sundareswaran’s desire to help people, and the role that the social determinants of health would play in that journey. 

She earned her medical degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, followed by postgraduate training in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston.  

Along the way, she, and Dr. Mathew Moore, also a family physician, became partners in life and work.  They’ve been learners together, practitioners together and business owners together, running and growing their busy practice in Peterborough. As part of the rural block of their residency program at Queen’s, they even travelled together to practise medicine in the Falkland Islands in 2017, an experience that Dr. Sundareswaran calls one of the most amazing of her life. 

“Working in a remote community like that really opened my eyes to the realities of practising medicine in a more resource-limited settings,” she says. “It also shed light on the breadth and full scope of family medicine.” 

Dr. Sundareswaran holds her CPSO Board Award.

Yet her roots in Toronto’s St. James Town have always stayed with her. Dr. Sundareswaran became the founder and medical director of the Peterborough Newcomer Health Clinic in 2023, providing short-term medical care for up to six months for new arrivals to Canada. Dr. Sundareswaran and her team help immigrants, including refugees, with orientation to the Canadian health-care system, referrals to specialty services, immunizations and much more. With Canada slated to accept 500,000 new permanent residents in 2025 – with tens of thousands of them expected to be refugees from conflict zones around the world – the demand for these and other services is high.   

In launching the clinic, Dr. Sundareswaran recognized that there were three elements that were key to the clinic’s success: it needed to be sustainable, it needed to be physician-led and it needed to embrace a continuous-improvement mentality. “We are constantly looking for ways to make it better,” she says. 

One colleague who sees Dr. Sundareswaran’s energy and creativity at work, day in and day out, is Duff Sprague. He is CEO of the Peterborough Family Health Team, where Dr. Sundareswaran is an affiliated family physician and one of her nominators for the CPSO Board Award.  

“I was impressed by her right away,” he says. “Her mind is electric. She’s always thinking about how to make health care better. From running a busy practice and sitting on our physician recruitment committee, to contributing to medical research and running a think tank that meets regularly to look at local and provincial health system issues, she’s proven herself to be both a leader and a doer.” 

“I have colleagues retiring, morale isn’t great, but that’s just my motivation to stay in the game and make it better.” 

Mr. Sprague says that Dr. Sundareswaran’s work at the Peterborough Newcomer Health Clinic, which involves a half-day session once a week, makes a huge difference to the immigrants and refugees coming into Peterborough. “That waiting room is brought to life on Tuesday mornings,” he says. “People who may have never had access to health care are now getting the help they need, thanks to her. It’s such an important thing for this community.” 

Still, Peterborough’s health landscape is, like many places across Ontario, struggling with a raft of issues: homelessness and addiction, and the increasingly complex needs of an aging population. And of course, the shortage of physicians. 

Much needs to change in primary care over the next few years to make things better, says Dr. Sundareswaran. The status quo is not sustainable.  

But if she had to do it all again, she would still choose family medicine.  “I love it. I have colleagues retiring, morale isn’t great, but that’s just my motivation to stay in the game and make it better.”