Mergim Binakaj is a third-year, enhanced skills resident in the addictions medicine program at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. Originally from Edmonton with family roots in Kosovo, he completed an undergraduate degree and medical school at the University of Alberta before coming to Toronto.
Though he’s always been drawn to and fulfilled by social justice, and working with marginalized individuals, family medicine was a last-minute decision.
“I was torn between internal medicine and family medicine,” says Binakaj, whose program is run through U of T’s department of family and community medicine. “I think the kicker for me was having a more versatile scope of practice that would allow me more opportunities to do things like global health, inner city health, and ongoingly reinvent my career as new interests and opportunities emerged.”
Now, Binakaj is based at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, but will also work at St. Michael’s Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Women’s College Hospital, The Hospital for Sick Children, and non-tertiary centres like Bellwood Health Services, Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, and Coderix Addiction Therapy.
Activism is the driving force behind Binakaj’s work. In medical school, he regularly partook in provincial and national political action days, and met with members of parliament and legislative assembly to discuss policy changes that would benefit the health of Albertans and Canadians. He later became involved with the Alberta Refugee Health Coalition, which contributed to the reopening of Edmonton’s only health centre dedicated to refugees.
Despite passionate advocacy throughout his academic career, it hasn’t always been easy.
“The biggest challenge so far in my career has been the persistent disconnect I feel between the social realities that my patients experience and the social policies our society creates to serve people,” says Binakaj, who is also a board member and member-at-large for Health Providers Against Poverty, based in Ontario.
“The Ontario Disability Support Program is a starvation wage, and Ontario Works is even worse,” he says. “It’s been a tough time for folks in my cohort who believe in anti-poverty activism. The creeping political nihilism within my generation is very real. I think it’s so important to remind ourselves that we can actually make a difference.”
Binakaj is a passionate patient advocate, but he is also acutely aware of the importance of clinician and resident well-being. After moving to Toronto, he became a general council member of the Professional Association of Residents of Ontario, and in 2022 he was nominated to represent Resident Doctors of Canada at the University of Manitoba’s accreditation for their family medicine and enhanced skills programs.
He also created the Family Medicine Residents Association of Toronto's inaugural “Battle of the Bands,” a year-end party that took place in June of 2023 and saw residents and clinical staff from various sites showcase their musical talent through friendly competition.
Binakaj is very aware of the emotional and mental burdens many physicians carry. “We need to make sure that we are looking out for ourselves while we try to change and improve the system we work within,” he says. “It is important for trainees to practise saying ‘no.’ As learners, we are so primed to be keen and take on every learning or professional opportunity that comes our way, but this is one of many roads to burnout.”
Looking ahead, Binakaj plans to stay in Toronto with his wife, who is finishing psychiatry training, and his brother, who recently moved to the city. While he hopes to be involved with the department of family and community medicine for teaching opportunities in the future, another goal is international medical work.
A clinical highlight for him was completing an infectious disease elective at Kosovo’s University of Prishtina, where he was able to use his rural dialect of Albanian to communicate with and provide care to patients. Ultimately, he’d like to educate future family doctors as a Temerty Medicine faculty member, with a focus on addictions medicine.
“Family medicine really is what you make it, and it is so incredibly diverse as a discipline,” he says. “It’s a blessing to be able to connect with so many patients on a personal level, to have more geographic flexibility on where you intend to work long-term.”
Binakaj also stresses that it is a difficult time when it comes to citizen access to primary care. “Access to primary care is being threatened across this country, and it’s never been more important for family physicians to follow in the footsteps of activists like our very own departmental chair, Dr. Danielle Martin, to ensure that quality health care is a right for all of us.”
On February 20, Onye Nnorom is launching a series of Instagram Live sessions that will aim to encourage teen and young adults from diverse backgrounds to consider a career in medicine, or other health professions.