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Johan Viljoen

January 31, 2022

Roz Bahrami

We sat down with Johan Viljoen, a Current Student Ambassador (CSA) within the Health Law program, to learn more about him, his experience in the LLM, and how he’s applying what he’s being taught. Read on to learn more.

Tell us a bit about you and what you do.

I am by training an Obstetrician/Gynecologist and I’ve practiced as such for close to 30 years. I am from South Africa and immigrated to Canada within 2 years of residency. So, the bulk of my experience has been in Canada. I spent 3 years in a rural community in Alberta before I was recruited to the Niagara region, where I’ve been for almost 27 years. I fell into medical leadership about half-way through that and really became interested in educating myself in leadership. We go to medical school and become doctors, not leaders, and I found out quickly that the issues I was called upon to deal with required a whole lot more. So, I always tried my very best to prepare myself for leadership, taking some certified leadership courses in the US, including an MBA from the University of Massachusetts. They filled some holes in my experience.

Two years ago, I became the full-time Chief of Staff for Niagara Health. We take care of a half million people across 5 sites. As Chief of Staff, you deal with issues that very frequently morph into a medical legal environment, including performance, negligence, behavioural issues, and privilege – quite the minefield! So, this was an area of knowledge I needed to expand. I did a couple of certificates through Osgoode a few years ago, and when the opportunity came to do the LLM, I looked at the breadth of coverage and realized it was an automatic fit. Then, Covid came along and I was floored by the health and medical legal implications that came about. So, I found it so helpful on a number of levels – ethical, legal, human rights, staff rights – to have this background from the LLM. As I plan to close my working years as a medical leader, it is my firm belief that the courses I’m doing and relationships I’m building will make me a more well-rounded Chief of Staff.

Can you say more about your research and discernment process around the LLM? You’ve done some certificates at OsgoodePD, but why this particular degree when there are others out there?

Having done the 2 certificates, and knowing the quality and stature of the presenters and professors, it was an easy decision for me. One of my slightly younger colleagues did the LLM through OsgoodePD 2-3 years ago and I had spoken to her about it. That completely sold me on the program. I was interested in the opportunity to study at a university with high standing. It’s not just about the degree, but also the institution as being high standing. The standards that students are held to are high and that’s important to me as well.

What kind of expectations and concerns did you have? What did you discover upon actually beginning the degree?

One of the concerns that I had was that I am not a lawyer. Having worked with lawyers very closely, I was cognizant of lawyers thinking differently, speaking differently, and reading differently. But, that’s a great thing about the program and its introductory course – it covers how to do legal research and write a legal paper. It’s very different from how I am trained as a physician to treat materials and information, and how I typically translate information from paper to use. So, the course was a big learning curve for me. The support we got in doing it was fantastic, but that was my big fear, like “Oh my goodness, am I going to be able to read a Supreme Court ruling and understand what I just read?” But, being given the tools definitely made it easier.

With respect to expectations, I was really wondering how much what I’ve learned will help me in my day to day functioning as Chief of Staff. As in, “How will I be taught to look in the right places for the right answers to the questions I am going to be faced with?” Again, in that basic intro course, that became quite clear. I learned how to look for what I need, where I need it.

Can you talk about your experience with other students in the program, including the dynamic between lawyers and non-legal professionals?

That’s where Zoom was fantastic. You see everybody and how they react. You think along with them. I always found it extremely interesting and I listened closely to the responses from those whom I knew to be lawyers. They seemed to see things and be able to dig out crucial bits of information that I just didn’t get. That was extremely helpful. I learned vicariously through them, like “How does she respond to this question? I’ve learned that her responses really show a lot of insight.” It gives you the opportunity to connect and ask how and why someone came to that conclusion, and where did they look. It’s a huge benefit to have a cohort of individuals that bring completely different perspectives. We always have someone who knows a little more than someone else in a given area. They bring the real world experience to you – the behind the scenes insight that you don’t get from reading a single case or a chapter somewhere. We have a naturopath in the program who talks about regulations and I’ve found out things about their regulations that I never knew before. We have a cohort of 32-34 students and it’s almost as though we sub-specialize internally within the group. When there’s a particular question with a particular flavour, the whole class turns toward a given individual for their answer and feedback. You become a community of learning.

How have you found the Health Law courses?

Pandemic law found its way into the program, which had dire applications for us at Niagara Health! We were looking at developing critical care triage protocols. Now by and large, they were developed by the provincial government and given to us, but we had the opportunity to refine them for ourselves and look at them from a legal and human rights perspective. I don’t think I would have been able to do that as effectively without a background from the LLM. So, there was one direct application.

Looking at Mental Health Law, I found the same thing. As Chief of Staff, I hear about patient complaints and issues of capacity. Through the course, I learned more about rights, advice, capacity, and competence, and I have a far deeper understanding. When these critical incidents come across my desk, I can read them with far more insight and involve myself far more so.

I was stunned to learn that we do not have in-house rights advisors and that we used to have to call a central government agency. I realized that was a huge gap for a health system that takes care of half a million people! As I work my way through the various disciplines in the program, it informs how I see my work and my various responsibilities. We just finished Information Technology and Privacy in Health Law. Our hospital happens to require a new information system. So, it was helpful for me to see what the various risks are to an organization with regard to a move toward virtual care. We all think it’s simple and nice – connect with a patient on Zoom for a consultation – without realizing the risks to health and privacy when you are on these platforms. It prompted me to go to our CIO and present a list of questions: are we covering all our bases with regard to compliance? How about personal health information? How do we know if a patient is actually a patient? And who else is in the room with the patient while we are conducting this consultation? It was a pie-in-the-sky expectation that I did not realize was going to translate so much. All sorts of questions arose.

A big part of my work is around privilege and discipline. It’s not easy, once a physician has privilege, to alter – let alone revoke – those privileges. You have to jump through a number of hoops. Most of us have a superficial idea of how it all works until you look at the law and realize how intricate it is. So, we’re looking at how we change performance management so that we are far more focused on ongoing performance management. So, in the event that action needs to be taken, you have fulfilled all the requirements that you may have been asked about in a legal setting.

What would you say to a prospective student?

I would like to know what their background is, where they are coming from, and what their expectations are. The degree requires a lot of input from your side and you need to make sure that that is a value proposition for you. You need to know where you are and where you want to go with it. What is it that you want to get out of it? It’s one thing for a lawyer who wants to do health law as a specialty, but if you’re a pharmacist, why are you looking at health law? Do you have a specific focus? I know there are people in the program who want to do research in a particular area and feel like having the background would help them. This isn’t something you do for the sake of it – it’s a lot of work to put in. For me, it’s very exciting because it’s answering so many questions that I have, and I have a wide range of issues that I know it’s going to help me with!

Want to learn more about the Professional LLM in Health Law? Sign up for an Information Session!