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CAMH head Catherine Zahn tapped as Ontario’s new deputy health minister
Aug. 24, 2021
Wency Leung

Catherine Zahn’s next job will be her biggest yet. And she anticipates it will be her last major position.

After 12 years at the helm of Canada’s largest mental-health teaching hospital and one of its top research institutions, Dr. Zahn will step down as chief executive officer and president of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to become Ontario’s deputy minister of health on Sept. 7. She will replace Helen Angus, who is retiring after having held the job since 2018.

“I’m considering it a wonderful bookend to my career,” Dr. Zahn said. “This will probably be the last large role that I have in my professional lifetime.”

As the new deputy to Health Minister Christine Elliott, Dr. Zahn will have her work cut out for her. She will be taking a leadership role in the ministry at a time when Ontario is grappling with a fourth wave of COVID-19, a worsening opioids crisis, a rise in mental-health problems and a health care system that has been battered by the pandemic.

The enormity of the challenges she faces are not lost on her. One of her first priorities, she said, is to understand how to best support health care workers, many of whom are burned out and short-staffed. In the short- to medium-term, she intends to concentrate on health resources as the province tackles the pandemic, and organize primary and community care to promote health and prevent illness -- all this, while learning the ins and outs of working within government.

“It’s a new world for me,” said Dr. Zahn, who practised neurology and served as executive vice-president of clinical programs and practice at Toronto’s University Health Network before joining CAMH. “I anticipate a fast and furious learning curve.”

Originally from Tiffin, a small city in northern Ohio, Dr. Zahn studied at the University of Toronto, where she earned a medical degree with honours and completed her residency training in neurology. She also has a master of science degree in health administration from the University of Toronto and has completed the Rotman School of Management’s directors education program.

Among her titles and honours, she is a professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine and was awarded the Order of Canada in 2014 for her contributions as a neuroscientist, health care administrator and mental-health advocate.

Dr. Zahn said she was initially drawn to neurology because she was attracted to the unknowns of the brain. Her move from patient care to hospital leadership was the result of being “in the right place at the right time,” she said. But she sees her career as being propelled by her desire to take care of others.

”In the leadership roles, I have an opportunity to support, to help grow, to take care of people who are also taking care of people,” she said, noting that approach has allowed her to expand the reach of what she could do.

Dr. Zahn’s accomplishments, including guiding CAMH through a major expansion, led the Health Ministry to tap her for the deputy minister position.

In an e-mail, Anna Miller, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health, said Dr. Zahn’s appointment was the result of an “invitational talent search.”

Those who work closely with Dr. Zahn at CAMH describe her as indefatigable and inspiring.

“Dr. Zahn’s extensive expertise in the health and human services sector, her deep relationships in the community, her track record, and her commitment to service excellence and innovation will be a tremendous asset to the OPS (Ontario Public Service) and the Province of Ontario,” Ms. Miller said.

Those who work closely with Dr. Zahn at CAMH describe her as indefatigable and inspiring. They say they hope to see her bring the commitment she showed at CAMH to collaboration, equity and mental health to her new job.

David Goldbloom, CAMH’s senior medical adviser, said it’s encouraging that Ontario’s incoming deputy health minister recognizes mental health “as being the epicentre of the health system, not at the periphery.”

Renee Linklater, senior director of the Shkaabe Makwa centre at CAMH, which serves First Nations, M├ętis and Inuit patients, said she has travelled with Dr. Zahn to multiple Indigenous communities in Ontario over the years, including those in the far North. Dr. Zahn’s willingness to hear from community members, and appreciation for incorporating culture into treatment made an impression on Dr. Linklater.

“She’s out in our communities and she’s listening and learning,” she said.

Dr. Linklater, who is a member of Rainy River First Nations in Northwestern Ontario, said she hopes Dr. Zahn will continue to support the expansion of culturally relevant services to the diverse Indigenous communities throughout the province, and ensure they are developed in a collaboration with those who need them.

Psychiatrist Juveria Zaheer, medical head of the emergency department at CAMH, said she hopes to see Dr. Zahn push for lifesaving, evidence-based treatments -- including different forms of psychotherapy -- to be made available to everybody, regardless of geography or socioeconomic status.

Dr. Zaheer said she was initially shocked upon hearing of Dr. Zahn’s new appointment. “But then, the more you think about it, it does make a perfect kind of sense,” she said. “In this new role, she could do a lot of good for a lot of Ontarians.”