Surgeon juggles tasks to complete master’s in health information science

Human and Social Development, Graduate Studies

- Melanie Tromp Hoover

Dr. James Stewart officially has all of his medical bases covered. 

Already a practicing general surgeon and a father of five, Stewart took on the extraordinary challenge of adding a UVic master’s degree in Health Information Science (HINF) by distance to his limited free time in January 2009, first studying from Vancouver before moving home to Edmonton six months in.

“Sometimes getting to class online was a real act of coordination,” laughs Stewart. “If a lesson was happening when I had to take the kids to soccer practice, I’d tether my phone to my computer and then route it through the car stereo so I could hear the lecture.

“There I’d be, sitting outside in the car in –25 degree weather, listening with my headphones to school and responding to questions by phone.”

Soccer practice wasn’t even the most eclectic improvised classroom for Stewart; as an on-call surgeon for at least one shift per week, he’s been known to squeeze in a lesson or two between cases in the operating room if need be.

Originally from Lethbridge, AB, Stewart studied at the University of Alberta for both his undergraduate degree and his medical training before seeking out UVic’s HINF program—which studies how health data are collected, stored and communicated—after learning that general surgeons in his hospital were required to have a master’s  to gain residency.

“I’m finding ways for my schoolwork and surgical work to interrelate,” says Stewart, who focused his studies on operating wait-times and electronic referrals. “Generally speaking, HINF has helped me in my day-to-day work interacting with electronic medical records, the admin side of the job and with research.”

Stewart’s blended interests have also resulted in a new and slowly-evolving advisory role with the Information Technology Department at Alberta Health Services, where he’s slated to be involved with the planning and deployment of a new outpatient information system after it’s customized for the Edmonton health region.

Although he had no fixed notions of what distance education would look like, Stewart was encouraged by both the program’s structure and the two opportunities he had to come to campus for in-person group work.

“The professors were so accessible, and my classmates all came from different specialties so the discussions in class and in seminars were really well-rounded,” says Stewart, whose life outside medicine is largely taken up with his parenting responsibilities (including ample time at the baseball diamond and soccer pitch).

Next steps for Stewart include solidifying his surgical position and fleshing out his consultant role with Alberta Health Services.

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Keywords: health information science, convocation, student life, alumni, health

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