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Academics never really retire: SPPH celebrates career of Professor Emeritus Sam Sheps

Sep 14, 2016 |


Academics never really retire.

That is according to Professor Emeritus Sam Sheps, and indeed, judging by his future plans, he may soon be adding to his 58-page resume, despite celebrating his retirement from the School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) this week, after 35 years in the field.

He has been a professor for more than 20 years, starting as a research associate in the Division of Population Pediatrics in 1978 in the old Children’s Hospital. In 1981, he joined what was then the Department of Healthcare and Epidemiology part-time, moving to a full-time appointment in 1984. Dr. Sheps served as the Department’s Chair for 10 years, and witnessed its evolution into the School of Population and Public Health.

He set up the Master of Health Science program in the early 1980s as part of the Department’s plan to establish clinical epidemiology as a focus, oversaw the development and implementation of the Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy program in the early 1990s, of which he was director almost continuously until January this year, and has been inducted into ‘Tempus Fugit’, a club which recognizes 35 years of service at UBC.

“I have a whole shelf of theses and dissertations I’ve been involved in as a supervisor.”
Professor Emeritus Sam Sheps

With parents who were both physicians, and who both earned Master of Public Health degrees, it does not come as much of a surprise that Dr. Sheps ended up in the field of public health. Initially trained as a physician working in Pediatrics, he says he realized after his residency that to do the research he found interesting, he would not be able to practice, as the patients always come first. But the medical experience helped, he says.prof-sheps-headshot
“As a researcher, having clinical experience provides one with a critically important perspective on how the health system works.”

From there, his decades-spanning work has seen Dr. Sheps as the principal investigator of more than 100 research projects, and a member of more than 80 committees and scholarly societies, including being a founding member of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research. He has advised governments, and been a reviewer for many academic journals, including JAMA, CMAJ Pediatrics, and Social Science in Medicine.

In addition to the above, one of the highlights of his career was serving as the director of the Western Regional Training Centre (WRTC) program, he says. Established through a 10 year grant from the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, the WRTC saw doctoral and master’s students from many disciplines and research programs, including sociology, economics, and political science, participate in a weekly seminar, and take part in field placements within the health care system in order to learn how it really worked. Despite other professions working in context, gaining practical experience in most PhD programs was not common at the time, Dr. Sheps says.

“It was a new way of thinking.”
Professor Emeritus Sam Sheps

Starting with UBC and the University of Manitoba, the program added UNBC, the University of Calgary, the University of Saskatchewan and more, and continued over 16 years.

In 2002, Dr. Sheps first became engaged in patient safety issues as a researcher in the Canadian Adverse Events Study published in 2004, which he says has been “endlessly fascinating” and a great learning experience. He has published research on unnecessary hospitalization rates, and co-authored, with colleague Karen Cardiff, major reports for Health Canada and the Canadian Patient Safety Institute, as well as being involved in or chairing various committees, training workshops and conferences focussing on patient safety. For the last five years his particular interest has focused on the concept of resilience, and understanding the implications of the observation that ‘daily healthcare work as imagined’ by healthcare managers and senior leadership may not actually reflect ‘healthcare work as actually done’ on the frontlines.

Public health has become more bureaucratized since he started some 30 years ago, Dr. Sheps says, and risk management has become “a bit of an obsession”. Public health officers no longer have the array of powers they once had.
“Governments, unfortunately, are anxious that doing what’s right for the public’s health can mess with their agendas.”prof-sheps-arms-crossed

In the future, he sees potential issues with public health workers trying to do their jobs, running up against vested interests, and trying to change the status quo. He also believes public health as a field will need to think differently about the physiology of age, given more people are living past the age of 80 years. For example, he says, it was not understood until recently how hospitalization can lead to reduced physical and cognitive function, a major problem for older patients.

Working at SPPH, and for the WRTC program, was easy, productive and fun, thanks to the people he worked with, Dr. Sheps says.

“I’ve been lucky to work with very nice, competent, people.”
Professor Emeritus Sam Sheps

Dr. Sheps aims to continue his work on patient safety and resilience, including writing, taking part in a monthly teleconference with health care workers across the country and in the USA, and helping to organize the Resilience Health Care Net conference, a meeting of international inter-disciplinary researchers and healthcare practitioners planned for Vancouver in 2017.

He will also continue to serve as a university examiner for several graduate students each term and, he hopes, be generally useful to the School as Professor Emeritus. He looks forward to having more time with his family, including granddaughter Clea (now five and a half), his daughters Kate and Sarah, and his wife of 50 years, JoAnn, without whom, he says, none of the above would have been possible.

He also looks forward to doing more photography.
“I haven’t printed a picture in a very long time – I’d like to do that.”

“He has a way with everyone because he is respected by everyone.”

SPPH co-director Professor Chris Lovato said Dr. Sheps is respected by everyone – students, staff, faculty, and administration. Dr. Lovato joined the faculty in the 1990s when Dr. Sheps was Department Head, and said she will always be grateful for his support and welcome.
“His wit and wisdom were everywhere they needed to be, especially when we were facing ‘sticky’ problems. Through the years he’s been a wonderful colleague and mentor.”

Co-director Professor Carolyn Gotay said she appreciated Dr. Sheps’ insights on difficult management issues over the years. “His wisdom stems from his in-depth experience, clinical and research expertise, and personal integrity and empathy.”

“I’ll miss having him right down the hall, but I’m still going to seek him out when I need counselling!”
SPPH co-diretor Professor Carolyn Gotay

SPPH Professor, and fellow Centre for Health Services and Policy Research founding member, Dr. Morris Barer, said he and Dr. Sheps became Assistant Professors in the Department of Health Care and Epidemiology at the same time, in 1981, and 35 good and highly productive years had flown by. “During our time together in the Department and then the School, Sam was my Department Chair, a graduate student co-supervisor…a co-investigator and collaborator on a variety of projects, my right hand man in a major consultation for the Manitoba Department of Health in the 1990s, a co-conspirator on the Western Canada Waitlist Project with Tom Noseworthy, Steven Lewis, Claudia Sanmartin and others, and the inspiration, brains and brawn behind the Western Regional Training Centre, in which circumstances prevented me from ever playing more than a bit part.”

Their combined project work had covered a lot of important ground, Dr. Barer said, including the anatomy of wait lists and the dynamics of increases in health care utilization and costs, and Dr. Sheps was part of the “catchy titles cabal”, which produced works such as ‘The Quick and the Dead’ (about hospital lengths of stay), ‘The Eyes Have It’ (about cataract surgery rates), and ‘Lots of Heat, Little Light’ (about the rhetoric around wait lists).

“It’s been a remarkable privilege to have been able to collaborate, and to have had so much fun, for so many years on so many projects, with such a dedicated, generous, and conscientious soul. You’ve put in your time. ‘Take the money and run’.”
SPPH Professor Morris Barer

SPPH Professor Martin Schechter said he owed Dr. Sheps a great debt of gratitude. When in medical school and considering epidemiology, he dropped in unannounced on Dr. Sheps, who spent an hour speaking with Dr. Schechter about UBC and the Department. This prompted Dr. Schechter to apply for a job there years later. Dr. Sheps was a mentor to him, and to “countless” students and trainees, Dr. Schechter said. Together they wrote a series of articles on topics in clinical epidemiology, “and had a lot of fun doing it.” Dr. Sheps had made major contributions in many fields including pediatric epidemiology and patient safety, he said.

“He was also a wonderful colleague and we shared many laughs together. It has been a true honour for me and a distinct pleasure to have worked with him these many years.”
SPPH Professor Martin Schechter

SPPH Assistant Professor Chris McLeod first met Dr. Sheps as a trainee in the WRTC program and as a student in the Philosophy of Science course. Dr. Sheps was an engaging and thoughtful teacher, and his instruction was some of the best Dr. McLeod experienced in his graduate training, he said.
“As an early career faculty, Sam has been a collaborator on many projects and willing ear to provide the advice of many years of experience. I greatly appreciate his commitment to teaching and research at SPPH; his contribution has been to my benefit as it has been for many others.”

SPPH Senior Administrator Virginia Anthony said Dr. Sheps was always generous with his time with students, staff and faculty, and was quick to acknowledge those who supported him and the department.
“I am pleased that Sam will still be in SPPH in his post-retirement appointment. His dedication to the education of the next generation is remarkable.”

PhD, MSc, and MHSc graduate education manager Beth Hensler said it was not possible to quantify the amount of wisdom and guidance she had gained from working with Dr. Sheps. Ms Hensler said throughout the five years she had worked with Dr. Sheps, she had always felt respected and listened to by a “calm leader, wise mind, and friend.”
“With the memory of an elephant, and a dry wit that cannot be matched, Sam always found a way to work through many ‘interesting’ and challenging situations professionally with a dash of humour.”

Dr. Sheps was doctoral student Sean Hardiman’s Master of Health Administration major paper advisor, Executive Training for Research Application (EXTRA) advisor, and initial PhD supervisor, bringing guidance, critical thought, knowledge and practicality, Mr Hardiman said.
“What I appreciated most about Sam as an advisor was his understanding of the history of BC’s health system and its constituent parts – he always seemed to know someone who had direct involvement in whatever it was I was curious about.”

“The number of people I met in my work in health services management who knew Sam, had worked with him, and who had wonderful things to say about their experience working with him were many.”
SPPH doctoral student Sean Hardiman

Dr. Sheps’ last day as Professor was August 31st. He will continue as Professor Emeritus. His retirement celebration occurs this week.

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