Dr. Athena McConnell (left), and her mother Terri.

Keeping a handle on accreditation

Meet the driving force behind the CoM accreditation process

By Marg Sheridan

It’s been well publicized over the past few years that the College of Medicine’s undergraduate program, while fully accredited, was on probation with the accreditation body – the Committee on Accreditation of Canadian Medical Schools (CACMS) – and when the news came last October that the probation status had been lifted, it was in no small part thanks to the work of Dr. Athena McConnell.

McConnell, who is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, had never imagined her career would lead her into her current role as the Assistant Dean Quality.

“I’m still a faculty member, but I wear many different hats,” McConnell explained. “I’m the site coordinator for two CIHR national grants, have a busy clinical practice in pediatric infectious diseases, and 0.4 of my time is as Assistant Dean Quality – which I think probably means I’m the Assistant Dean of Chaos more than anything else,” she joked.

After having completed a degree in microbiology in her hometown of Calgary, McConnell moved to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont where she finished her MD training before moving to Saskatoon for a three-year pediatric residency. What followed was a return to Calgary to complete an Infectious Diseases fellowship and a Master’s in medical education. It’s a road that eventually led McConnell back to the CoM in 2007, and would pave the way for her becoming an integral member of the college accreditation team.

When asked what specifically got her involved in the process, she laughed.

“It’s called choosing your mentors wisely!”

“When I came back here in 2007, I had agreed to take over coordinating the pediatric courses, so that meant being the faculty coordinator for the pre-clerkship courses, as well as for the pediatric clerkship rotation.”

Her work as a coordinator meant McConnell started to meet people who were heavily involved with all aspects of the CoM, and that included the former Associate Dean of UGME, Dr. Sheila Harding. So a couple years later when Harding approached her to take on the newly created role of an accreditation interim-review coordinator, McConnell accepted since she had already been paying attention to a lot of the accreditation information as part of her then Phase D (JURSI) Chair position.

“That was 2011, and then in 2013 suddenly I started hearing talk about splitting off the function of accreditation and making an assistant dean’s role out of it,” McConnell continued. “As much as I was reluctant to apply for the position, it was Dr. Harding’s faith that I could do it – and the years I had been in administration – were really the two things that made me apply for the position.”

McConnell works closely with the Accreditation Specialist, Kevin Siebert BEd, MBA, who joined the CoM in late 2014 in advance of the May 2015 visit. The pair work to both gather and disseminate the data needed for accreditation, and help the broader faculty and administration at the CoM to understand the steps needed to achieve a positive accreditation status.

“The present task is to get this college ready for the upcoming accreditation visit in October 2017,” she explained. “But in getting the college ready for that particular visit and in the months after that visit, we’re also being tasked with identifying where our processes are not going to make accreditation sustainable.

“It’s one thing to say ‘here’s what we’re going to do for October 2017’ but if we don’t fix the underlying problems, those problems will still occur downstream.”

So an important part of her position includes not just monitoring administrative processes that may not be working, but helping people to understand why it’s an issue.

And when the accrediting body took the CoM off probation last October, McConnell was one of the happiest people with the result.

“I liked that decision,” she laughed.

She was also a big part of driving the college to compliance, and though she likely wouldn’t admit it herself, there are those—Harding among them—who would.

“Accreditation is a mission-critical, continuous process of program improvement,” Harding explained. “Dr. McConnell has shown herself to be exactly the right choice as the inaugural Assistant Dean Quality. She demonstrates strong team leadership; intimate knowledge of accreditation standards, processes and timelines; tactful tenacity to work with and through others to ensure timely compliance with standards; careful attention to detail; and robust optimism.

“She pours her heart and soul into the role, to the clear benefit of the MD program and students.”