Making Waves in an Ambulance: Ian Drennan on Becoming a Paramedic Scientist

by Laura Best

Ian Drennan enjoys exploring the unknown; for him, a challenge is not a deterrent but an invitation. When he is not working to finish up his PhD at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute or at the hockey rink with his kids, Ian is on the frontlines of healthcare as an advanced care paramedic. What quickly became clear in the short time we had to chat is that Ian thrives in novel environments. Being one of only a few paramedics in Canada pursuing a research-based doctoral degree, he has a unique perspective that influences the research questions he asks and the contextualization of his findings. He was eager to share his experiences and why he chose to pursue not only a professional degree, but also a graduate degree at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Science (IMS) program.

Ian’s career path commenced at the University of Guelph, where he completed a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and first realized his passion for clinical care. Soon after, he transitioned to Humber College for his Primary Care Paramedic Diploma and enjoyed the fast-paced environment. “It has up days and down days, and you’re busy – it’s always different,” he shared. “Every scene you arrive at is different, every call leaves you learning something new.” Constantly walking into the unknown was stimulating and challenging—until it wasn’t anymore. After four years as a paramedic in Simcoe County and York Region, Ian began to feel comfortable in his role and “came to the realization that doing frontline work for the next 30 years wouldn’t be for him. [He] didn’t want to leave the profession, just wanted to do something new with it.” He felt as though “there was something more he could offer.” It was at this point that Ian began the search for a new perspective on paramedicine. After reviewing his potential options, Ian was intrigued by the way that research can inform guidelines and translate into clinical practice. He was inspired by paramedics in other provinces and countries who “forged ahead and created a better role where paramedics are really integrated in the medical system.” And, though it was uncommon for paramedics in Canada to pursue doctoral degrees at the time, Ian decided to enroll in graduate studies at U of T.

Under the supervision of Dr. Laurie Morrison, Ian’s doctoral work used an existing database at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto to develop different risk stratification tools and clinical prediction rules for post-cardiac arrest patients in the ICU. When patients arrive in hospital after a cardiac arrest, it is difficult to tell if they will recover, “a sort of grey period,” Ian explained, and current trials looking at different treatments for cardiac arrest patients or any prehospital treatments have often yielded negative findings. The idea was to use these tools clinically to find the probability of a good or poor outcome, and potentially learn when to focus a treatment option on one group of patients, in which there may be better efficacy.

Photo provided by Ian Drennan

Overall, Ian’s main focus was to develop a methodology that could be broadly applied to different areas of medicine. He expressed that he “has a whole list of things he wants to tackle after his PhD,” and hopes “to forge [his] own clinician scientist spot, as a paramedic scientist.” Having perspective from being on the frontline as a paramedic has only benefited the diverse thinking with which Ian has approached his research. It allows him to “think about what the next big research questions will be…and is helpful when putting some rational or implications behind your findings.” This unique dual experience has also allowed Ian to feel confident in bringing a valuable perspective to the panel discussions and committees he has sat on throughout his graduate degree.

At the time of our interview, Ian was just finishing up his degree. When asked about it, he replied “It’s been a bit of a journey, I’ve had some hiccups along the way…There’s been lots of good opportunities too. The paramedic role has been a unique twist to academia that most places are not as familiar with yet. The biggest challenge now is that I’m getting near the end – the now what?” He went on to explain that “for paramedics, only a few with PhDs…not only is there no path, but for most people it’s not even on their radar. When you say, ‘I’m a paramedic with a PhD’, the reply is often ‘oh, I’ve never thought about that before’…I’m trying to forge my own clinician scientist spot, as a paramedic scientist and it’s challenging.” Despite his uncertainty, Ian will continue to break new ground in the near future, as he has secured a unique job at Sunnybrook hospital that will allow him to meld his expertise as a paramedic and a researcher. “Part of the role will be to oversee clinical trials…and the other part will be to do my own research,” he explained. His resilience in new environments was apparent as he modestly listed some of the options afforded by his dual career path, ultimately praising the flexibility of his new role and relying on his own ability to figure it out.

After twelve years of service as a paramedic and eight as a researcher, I asked Ian about any tidbits of wisdom that have impacted him along the way. After a mindful pause, he emphasized that “if you have time and energy, you can do it. Find a supervisor that can guide you through the process.” Some of the best advice that Ian received from his own supervisor was that “collaborating is by far the best thing you can do and being able to collaborate is the best skill you can learn.” When expanding on his own takeaways from his degree experience, Ian advised to “take time during your degree to learn skills, learn how to do research and move on with your career,” as your project will inevitably grow but try your best to “keep it manageable.”

Through the cumulation of knowledge gained in his unique set of experiences, Ian is well-positioned to make big waves in the paramedicine field here in Ontario. He hopes to leverage his clinical and research perspectives to improve emergency healthcare from multiple infusion points. And when asked what he does in his ample amount of time off, Ian chuckled and replied that he and his family try to stay active as much as possible. Even if that often looks like travelling between hockey arenas with the kids for their many team commitments, they always manage to find some time to for a pick-up game here and there.