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“It's important to get medical students involved in their financial literacy early on."

Medical students juggle challenging, pressure-filled workloads, and many also struggle with crippling debt. Dr. Stephanie Zhou is committed to empowering students with financial knowledge and economic mobility so they can best chart their paths forward.

Stephanie, an addiction medicine physician at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, was recently honoured with the RBC Future Launch Future Leaders Award as part of the Women Executive Network’s Top 100 Canada’s Most Powerful Women Awards, in which RBC Future Launch celebrates five trailblazing young women each year who are transforming their communities through innovation, collaboration, and courage.

The drive to be financially literate

Stephanie Zhou

[Dr Stephanie Zhou]

Growing up in subsidized housing after immigrating to Canada when she was four, Stephanie became financially literate because she had to.

“I was the only one in my family who spoke fluent English, and I learned how to use a computer at the library,” recalls Stephanie, who is Sunnybrook’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity, and Social Accountability Lead.

“In elementary school, I accompanied my parents to the bank and helped them file taxes. In grade four, I researched social assistance programs when my mom was laid off and helped her create a resume and apply for jobs.”

Stephanie says her drive to succeed stemmed from her family’s experience with racism and classism.

“I remember hearing someone say my mom’s English was bad and to go back to where she came from, and I was bullied for being poor; classmates made fun of how I dressed,” she says.

“That made me choose a career with an income that would allow me and my family to get out of poverty.”

In high school, Stephanie decided to become a physician. At the library, she researched student loans and bursaries, budgeting, and investing.

Discovering her perfect specialty

In medical school, Stephane chose to focus on addiction medicine because she had witnessed people having hallucinations and delusions at shelters that helped her family during her childhood. During her Master’s degree studies, Stephanie joined a consulting project with Boston Healthcare’s homeless program. There she worked with clinicians practicing internal medicine, specializing in addictions.

“In Canada, the fastest way to get into that field was through family medicine and focusing your practice on addictions, which is what I did. Then, I helped start Sunnybrook’s addictions outpatient clinic and in-patient program,” she notes.

Today, Stephanie practices family medicine twice a week and her addiction specialization the other three days.

In her medical practice, Stephanie often helps patients with disability tax credits and social assistance forms.

“It’s come full circle because I helped my parents with those things,” she says.

Helping Canada’s next generation of physicians

In August 2018, Stephanie hosted a webinar for low-income students called Affording Medical School. She discussed finding and applying for grants, scholarships, and work-study programs, plus how to create a budget.

“Research has shown that students from lower-income households have less access to personal finance information than students from higher-income families,” she explains.

Stephanie then launched a financial education blog on Instagram called Breaking Bad Debt, sharing tips about becoming financially savvy.

“I tried to be the antithesis to most Instagrammers who posted about spending,” she says.

“I figured students scrolling through classmates’ posts about manicures and vacations would also see a post about TFSAs or how I paid down debts and coupons to save money on groceries.”

From Instagram to Compulsory curriculum

Soon, Stephanie had thousands of followers — including academic leaders at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine. That led to her developing an innovative and compulsory Financial Literacy curriculum for med students. It begins in orientation week and, due to popular demand, was recently expanded to all four years.

“In the first year, they learn how to make a budgeting spreadsheet, how budgeting apps and credit cards work, and about TFSAs, RRSPs, and the new first home savings account,” explains Stephanie.

In the second year, Stephanie and her team — including the financial aid office — teach students about investing and building a financial team of accountants, lawyers, bankers, and insurance brokers. The third year focuses on choosing your career, training, and burnout, while the fourth year explains how to pay down student loans.

“Students were asking for this program regardless of which income bracket they came from. It’s important for everybody,” says Stephanie, adding that U of T’s financial literacy curriculum has inspired other schools across Canada to follow suit.

“I’ve been asked to consult at other schools, including Queens, Dalhousie, and McGill. We’re sharing what we learned with the greater medical community, and that’s helped other medical schools develop financial literacy programs.”

The link between healthcare and financial literacy

Stephanie says people are surprised when they learn she teaches personal finance to medical students, but she believes socioeconomic status is the biggest social determinant of health.

“Many health decisions are based on cost and time, but in the future, that costs the healthcare system much more in the form of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even substance use,” she explains.

Stephanie sees common financial hurdles facing med students and young physicians through her work at U of T.

“Many people think doctors make lots of money after graduating, but they don’t. A resident physician’s average income is $60,000, and they’re faced with inflation and a higher cost of living, especially in Toronto or other expensive cities,” she says.

Giving back and offering solid money advice

In addition to her clinical and teaching duties, Stephanie and a team of Canadian medical students from various schools organize the annual Canadian Physicians Financial Wellness Conference — the largest in the country.

“It’s important to get medical students involved in their financial literacy early on, and we offer a welcoming and safe environment where everyone can learn together,” she says. The highlights from the earlier conference can be found on Stephanie’s Breaking Bad Debt YouTube channel.

“It’s one way to help the physician community give back to students that will become future physicians,” she adds.

For more financial advice, talk to one of our dedicated RBC Healthcare Specialists

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