If some ingredient is needed to complete the dinner recipe at Dr. Mark Szynkaruk’s house, he’s not likely the one to go and get it from the grocery store. “My wife knows I don’t do groceries,” Szynkaruk said, “because if I do go out for a carton of milk, I’ll be back in two hours because she knows I’m going to stop and chat with almost every person.”
Going on his third year as a family doctor in Grand Forks, Szynkaruk – “Dr. Mark” to his patients – says that community relationships have been key to successfully taking over the practice and settling in as a family in a new small town. Some patients, he says, have now become acquaintances, project partners, even friends. “That’s what makes it really cool being here,” he said. “I never really expected that to be as as important as it is. And the other reality is that it’s really important that you value those relationships whether it’s personal or professional, because in a small town, you kind of get one shot.”
Last month, he was recognized by his patients and peers with the My Family Doctor Award for Interior Health, administered by the BC College of Family Physicians. The award, the college says, “provides British Columbians with the opportunity to recognize and honour their own family doctors, celebrating the doctor-patient relationship that supports good health.”
In 2019, one of Szynkaruk’s nominators – a patient family – praised his efficiency and his support for someone going through a difficult diagnosis.
“My wife was thought to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, but with further scans it was discovered she had lung cancer that had metastasized in her brain and other places in her body,” the anonymous nominator wrote. “Dr. Szynkaruk did not sugarcoat the possibilities ahead of her but has been extremely helpful and has made himself available when needed.
“He has become one of her cheerleaders and has supported all and everything she has wanted to try or not try as regards to treatment. He has been honest and forthright, while being extremely supportive and has his team on my wife’s side.”
Reflecting on his training in Toronto, where Szynkaruk completed medical school, the doctor said that patient interactions felt transactional. There, he said, you weren’t likely to ever see a patient again, for medical or non-medical reasons. Since, Szynkaruk has worked in Iqaluit and Trail, before moving to Grand Forks. Coming back to a rural medical centre, he’s been able to draw on his experience growing up in his hometown of Komoka, Ont.
“When I left Ontario after finishing medical school at U of T, I wanted to find it again, out west. And so that’s how I think I was able to set roots down in a rural community – I understand the value, coming from one myself.”
While his grandparents are no longer his neighbours and his cousins aren’t around the corner, Szynkaruk says he’s sought to establish some of the same pleasures of work/life balance in the Kootenay-Boundary.
“I like to take part in things, especially downtown revitalization stuff, and so as a result you really entrenched yourself in in these people’s lives,” he said.
It took a lot of effort to get to that point though, and it’s an ongoing learning process.
“That’s why they call it practice,” Szynkaruk said. “You’re never done learning, and so I was just trying to keep my head above water [at the start] – that first 18 months was honestly a whirlwind and I think I gave it my all.”
That dedication has been appreciated by patients, who are then able to feel that their doctor was rooting for them, 1oo per cent of the way. It’s also not something that’s necessarily explicitly taught in medical school, either, Szynkaruk said.
“I think it’s really been the last six to 12 months that I’ve realized that [trust] is one of the most important things when you’re having discussions with people about their goals of care [and conditions],” he said. “People are asking you for your advice on what to do moving forward – If they don’t trust you, then you can’t help them.” One of the keys to establishing that rapport, Szynkaruk said, is understanding the human relationships at play.
With COVID-19 and advances in technology too, “tele-health” has become a buzzword in health care, but Szynkaruk said that, while it may have a role to play in connecting patients with specialists who have targeted questions, it just can’t replace a face-to-face interaction.
“I think when you come back to talking about family medicine and what the real value and where it comes from, it’s that relationship you’re building, the trust you’re developing and that longitudinal continuous care for people over time,” he said. “There’s more to communication than just words and a face.”
There’s more to a successful family practice than just a doctor too, he said. “Me getting this award is really just like the tip of the iceberg and it highlights the people around me that allow me to give this type of care.” Szynkaruk thanked his wife, staff and coworkers, who he turns to for help, support and advice. “Without these people, there’s no way I’d win an award. I’d just be floundering. It takes a village to build a good doc.”