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Ilana Yurkiewicz on Writing and Medicine

Ilana Yurkiewicz_photoMedical student and science writer Ilana Yurkiewicz says she always had an inkling that she wanted to be a physician. She grew up on Long Island, NY and did her undergrad at Yale University, where she studied molecular biology. While at Yale, she got her start in science writing, too, as Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Scientific Magazine. After college, she worked in science and health journalism as an AAAS Mass Medical fellow.

That brings us to today, when you’re likely to find Yurkiewicz, a fourth year medical student, studying at Harvard Medical School or typing away on her Scientific American blog, “Unofficial Prognosis.” She’ll begin a residency in internal medicine later this year. We sat down with her to talk about her experiences as a medical student, her love for writing and the possibilities she sees for her generation of medical students.

Q: Tell me about your journey to medical school. What made you pursue this path?

During college, people would sometimes ask if I was interested in science or the humanities, and I wondered why it had to be one or the other. I was interested in both. I kept my options open and explored different academic subcultures, but in the end I felt like medicine was the best choice for me. Medicine relies on a lot of communication and empathy but it’s evidence-based, too. We can use evidence to make better clinical decisions. The best part about this field is you get the amazing reward of improving people’s lives.

Q: What advice do you have for people entering medicine?

Medical training is long and unfortunately it can be frustrating with a lot of hoops to jump through. My number one piece of advice is to remember what you’re here for in the first place. There’s a bigger picture and it’s doing right by your patients. Don’t lose sight of that. You’re there to do justice for patients. Study in a way that will help you become a good doctor, not just pass the next quiz. We’re all human and vulnerable and get ill. Be your patient’s advocate. Listen more than you talk, and figure out what is important for the patient. Then do it.

Q: How does writing help you process your experiences?

I’ve turned to writing for a long time as a tool for reflection. I can make better sense of things on the page by forcing myself to articulate a web of feelings into a string of words. Writing for the public has two goals: I value doing personal and reflective pieces. But writing is also an agent for change. My ideas aren’t sequestered in an academic bubble. The public is reading them, which means my ideas are reaching many, very quickly. I enjoy using writing to spread my ideas and thoughts.

Q: What makes your generation of medical students different from others?

Are we? I’m not sure we’re that different. But, I do think we’re living in a time when information is readily available and that changes the way we learn and practice. We have apps and algorithms to guide our clinical decision-making and access to any information we need. We rely on more studies and evidence compared to an older model, which looks more like an apprenticeship. I think some older doctors might critique the way we do medicine by looking things up so frequently. But I see no shame in admitting that humans are fallible and our memories limited. The use of tools can simply supplement these normal human imperfections and help us reduce error.

Q: Why did you choose internal medicine?

I love the breadth and diversity internal medicine offers. It involves critical thinking, deep ties to pathophysiology, using evidence to drive decision making, and there are so many opportunities to assist patients. On any given day I could provide counseling on prevention or be putting the pieces together to solve a difficult diagnosis. In internal medicine you treat the person, not just the disease.

Q: What has your experience been as a woman in this field?

First, I think the ideal answer is that I never notice it and I’m a person in medicine. That’s where I hope we get eventually – that’s the end goal. But, we aren’t there yet and pretending we are isn’t going to fix the existing problems. Women in medicine face a lot of the same external biases that women face in any other field. Sometimes you are taken less seriously, have your accomplishments explained away due to external factors rather than your own ability, and you’re interrupted more. I believe a lot of this is subconscious, but no less pervasive and damaging.

You brush most of it off, because it’s a poor use of your time to argue with every thoughtless comment. But I’ve also become more vocal about these systemic issues. I used to simply hope that the biases I knew existed somehow wouldn’t affect me – that if I just kept succeeding, I’d magically be immune. But my approach now is simultaneously climbing the ladder while also being vocal about these issues. Because you have to be aware something exists to outsmart it and ultimately help eradicate it.

This post is part of our series of Q&As with “The Activist Generation” – a group young medical students, doctors and residents who hope to change the face of medicine as we know it. Do you know someone who’d be a perfect fit for this series? Email jenni@medtechboston.com to nominate them.

Soniya Shah

Soniya Shah

    Soniya Shah is an on-staff contributing writer at MedTech Boston. She's a senior at Carnegie Mellon University pursuing a BS in technical writing. She has experience as a ghost writer and medical writer, and in developing software documentation.

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