Long before Dr. Amit Arya very publicly called to overhaul Ontario’s long-term-care system, advocated for safe palliative care for racialized communities and became a recognized voice on social inequities on Twitter, his colleagues saw his potential to help minimize suffering for those with complex illnesses.
Arya worked as part of a family health team and visited at home people with disabilities and older adults with mobility issues. “One day,” he says, “we received a referral for a patient with palliative care needs, and I remember a colleague telling me, ‘You’d be great at this.’”
This was terrifying to Arya, who, at that point, had no such experience. But he discovered that there were unique elements that resonated with him. “Especially the focus on supporting families and caregivers,” he says. “Palliative care very quickly became my passion.”
Arya, who was born and raised in Vancouver, went to medical school at the University of British Columbia before completing his residency at the University of Alberta. In 2006, he moved to Brampton to practice family medicine, often working with new immigrants.
These days, you can find the 43-year-old’s name on several posts. He’s the palliative care lead at Kensington Health, a palliative care physician at North York General Hospital, a lecturer at the University of Toronto and an assistant clinical professor at McMaster University, all while holding leadership and advocacy roles at the local, provincial and national levels.
For Arya, the thread that runs through all these roles is the idea that palliative care is not a luxury, but a human right. “People think that palliative care is about dying, but it’s actually about living well,” he says.
He recalls one resident in long-term care who was in severe pain and her family was distraught and feeling helpless. “When the pain was appropriately treated,” he says, “the resident actually started to eat and sleep better and was happy and smiling for the first time in months. (She) eventually died peacefully and comfortably 11 months later with her family at the bedside.”
Stories like this are why Arya is devoted to filling the gaps he sees in the health-care system. At Kensington Health, he utilizes a new “shared care model” of palliative medicine that he himself developed. Arya offers consults and assistance to family doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and personal support workers so patients with palliative care needs aren’t relying solely on specialists.
Arya is also outspoken about what he calls a crisis in our long-term-care system, where facilities aren’t resourced or staffed well enough to look after residents — even before COVID-19 hit.
He describes how he and his peers became outraged at the lack of action, particularly from the government, to protect those living in long-term care. In response, he co-founded Doctors for Justice in Long-Term Care, a coalition of more than 1,000 physicians and researchers.
His activism also extends to improving palliative care in racialized communities. He regularly presents workshops on cultural safety — recognizing and respecting the identities of others — and antiracism and their impacts on palliative care.
Arya is humbled by the idea that his leadership would even be considered extraordinary. “What drives me are my regular experiences working in health care,” he says. “Years of underfunding of our health system and social safety net have created a humanitarian crisis that is still ongoing.”
Throughout the pandemic, Arya has also been very active on Twitter, where there’s a large community of health workers promoting public health and science while battling misinformation. Though advocacy is a responsibility for health workers, he says, all that online activity can be a ton of work.
“I dream of a day when my advocacy won’t be needed,” he says. “I’m hoping that one day our system will finally give the people I care for the life they actually deserve.”