Susan French

Susan French McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 25, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 04
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Susan French

Nursing in the new millennium

I know nursing is a hospitable profession, but Susan French, the new director of the School of Nursing, is hospitality itself. Sitting in plush blue armchairs, we discussed her plans for McGill over warm cups of tea.


After 31 years at McMaster University, she had no intention of coming back to McGill, an institution where she had both studied and taught. She certainly wasn't planning on an administrative position, but McGill faculty recruiters uttered the magic words, "just come and talk with us."

"You get excited," French explains. "Nursing in Montreal is very strong, stronger than anywhere else in Canada." Montreal nurses are well-educated, deeply committed and have a strong sense of identity. They work well with others in the medical field as well as with those in other disciplines. Inspired by the issues at hand, and tempted by living here once again, she relented.

Although French finds that the city's trim and stylish natives smoke too much, she delights in the cultural pleasures that Montreal offers.

Of the many educational challenges facing the School of Nursing, increasing enrolment is the most pressing.

At the undergraduate level, the University of Ottawa and UBC offer more accessible programs that take less time to complete. That, along with the perceived language problems facing non-Quebecers, means that fewer potential students consider McGill.

To make McGill more attractive, French is considering adding on-site courses to the curriculum, clarifying language requirements, and helping people attain a level of competency in French.

At the graduate level, McGill is the only school in Canada to offer entry to students with BAs & BScs.

The master's degree has a good reputation, is liked by the hospitals, and just needs more aggressive marketing. The doctoral program, too, is not enrolled to capacity and it takes too long for some students to finish it. French wants to examine, and perhaps tweak, the expectations of staff and students. After all, for a professional, a PhD is the "beginning of a life's work, not all of life's work."

Another challenge is to provide necessary experience while the number of hospital beds are decreasing. Even the lowered birth rate in Quebec means there is less exposure to pregnancy and birthing for student nurses. What are the basics needed to train students and how should the school attain them?

For research, French has a broader vision. "We need more clusters of areas of research, more teams." The school needs more specialties, areas of expertise, and more evidence-based research.

She is keen on encouraging interdisciplinary research between nurses, medical doctors, psychologists, social workers. Her own work had her rub elbows with social geographers, even anthropologists, in qualitative studies.

Nearly 20 years ago, his highness the Aga Khan, the Imam (spiritual leader) for Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, approached McMaster to ask for help with developing a school of nursing in Karachi, Pakistan.

French was eager to take on this challenge. In a population of about 135 million, Pakistan had roughly 20,000 nurses. By comparison, Canada has over 250,000 nurses.

The Aga Khan and McMaster, with some funding from Canada, developed a diploma-level program at the University of Aga Khan, and then the first undergraduate program in the country. Also, they addressed education, profession regulations, strengthened the existing professional organization, and developed research.

Although much has been accomplished, it will take many more years and more support from the government to truly make a difference. Currently, Pakistan devotes no more than about three per cent of its budget to health and education.

French started an educational exchange, bringing over students from Pakistan to Hamilton for six months of training. The Pakistani nurses were eager to learn about Canadian techniques and technology. French says it was interesting to see the Canadian experience through the eyes of newcomers. When they visited rural areas up north, the Pakistani nurses were appalled at the lack of birthing services and that women were flown away from home to give birth.

"I've become an advocate for women's health after all of this experience," French says. She also remains committed to development issues and is looking at a range of international possibilities for McGill. Starting this year, nursing students will be doing an eight-week internship, and she hopes to eventually encourage international placements. "It's good for students to become aware."

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