The Saskatchewan Medical Association's new president — and former vice-president — hails from rural Saskatchewan and intends to make that part of his focus representing the organization for the next year. On Friday at a virtual event, the association that represents some 2,400 physicians in Saskatchewan elected Dr. Eben Strydom, a physician currently working in Melfort, Sask., as its 55th president. Strydom is taking over as president of the Sask. Medical Association amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On the front lines he said he's heard a lot of worry and fatigue from physicians. "The system has been strained significantly over the last year basically," he said. "The variants of concern have a significant impact and it looks like the peak that it's causing now, it's more difficult to contain." Intensive care unit patients, he said, are getting younger, showing up sicker and staying longer than they have before, which is contributing to the concern physicians are feeling. Strydom said as long as the province showed flexibility and a willingness to introduce stricter measures if and where needed, he was cautiously optimistic about the possibility of bringing an end to the pandemic. Two milestones need to be reached and three weeks needs to pass before the province moves into its reopening strategy. Vaccinations will open to anyone over the age of 18 on May 18 — when the 16 and above category becomes eligible — and Saturday's COVID-19 update said nearly 70 per cent of those over the age of 40 received their first dose of vaccine. Once those benchmarks are reached and sustained, Step 1 of the provincial plan comes into effect. The number of COVID-19 patients receiving intensive care would also be considered before the province moves into the next step of the reopening plan, Premier Scott Moe said last week. On the flip side of the coin, the rules within the province's reopening plan are subject to change should the laid-out vaccination targets not be met. Access to rural health care a priority Pandemic aside, Strydom also wants to look into increasing access to rural health care in Saskatchewan. Strydom grew up in rural southwest Africa — now Namibia — where he said he became more aware about issues around rural access to healthcare. He arrived in Canada in 2003 after working for five years in Paarl Hospital in South Africa, where he trained as a generalist and obtained post-graduate diplomas in anesthesiology and obstetrics. Strydom practised as a family doctor for two months in Redvers before moving to Melfort, where he provides a full-service family practice and his work includes anesthesia, surgery and palliative care services. The mixed bag of services he can provide is part of what keeps him in rural Saskatchewan, but it also allows him to have an impact on people's lives in other ways. "[It's also] the connection we have with rural outpatients, the cradle-to-grave medicine, the fact that we can make a big difference," Strydom said in an interview with CBC News. "It's a lot of work and it's long hours but it's very satisfying." He plans to focus on supporting rural healthcare as the association's president through doing what he can to make working rurally attractive to doctors. Strydom said part of doing so is finding fair compensation for doctors who work rurally, which he said from his experience and that of his peers often comes with quite a heavy workload. The other part attracting doctors to rural Saskatchewan, he said, comes in ensuring the proper tools are in place to develop, enhance and maintain doctors' skills and support capabilities in rural areas to provide quality care to their patients. Strydom is to serve a one-year term as the medical association's president and replaces Dr. Barb Konstantynowicz, a doctor from Regina.