July 20, 2017

Heather Burrows, MD, PhD: Writing about the past to improve the future

Heather Lee Burrows, MD, PhD and Andrew R. Barnosky, DO, MPH are leading a unique self-reflection project with medical students 

Last fall, Andrew R. Barnosky, DO, MPH, professor of emergency medicine and anatomical science, and M-Home Salk House Director, and Heather Lee Burrows, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and Professional Identity & Balance Director invited Michigan Med students to participate in a special project through M-Home.

Dr. Barnosky and Dr. Burrows envisioned creating an anthology of reflection essays about the road to becoming a physician from the unique perspective of medical students, covering the journey from the White Coat Ceremony all the way through to Commencement. Thanks to tremendous student response, plans to publish this book are moving forward.

Here, Dr. Burrows answers eight questions about the origins of this project and why Michigan Med is the perfect place for it.

How did the idea of creating a collection of medical student essays about the journey to becoming a doctor get started?

Dr. Barnosky came up with the idea for this essay collection after reviewing essays over a number of years that students had written in a course known as the Family Centered Experience (an activity now part of the Doctoring Course). He felt that they provided a unique perspective on the experience of medical school that would be relevant to many readers.

How did you become involved?

Dr. Barnosky and I co-lead a course at the University of Michigan called The Healer’s Art. We also work together in the M-Home Learning Community. This project seemed like a natural extension of this course.

What interests you about facilitating this type of project?

It is always exciting to work with a group of students on a project. Their enthusiasm and creativity is inspirational. The students involved in the leadership of the program have been instrumental to the success of the project.

I think that the experience of becoming a physician is fascinating to many people, and the insight these students are sharing will be valuable to those in medicine and those who are not.

How does reflection benefit a student’s medical education?

The Latin origin of  “reflection” means “to bend” or “to turn back.” In medical education we think of reflection as a process in which our thoughts are “turned back” to a certain event or situation; we analyze and make sense of the event and these insights are used to gain a deeper understanding that is helpful when we encounter a similar event in the future.

Reflection can also be viewed as an intentional thought process that occurs after an experience, so that one can develop a greater understanding of both the self and the experience, and through which future encounters are informed from previous encounters.  

Were you surprised by the level of student interest in this project?

I was not surprised. We all want the opportunity to “tell our story.”

What is your role going forward?

We will continue to oversee the progress of this project. We will be writing the forward for the book as it nears completion. The ultimate goal for this project is to complete and publish a book of essays that reflects the continuum of the medical student experience.

What does it say about the environment and culture at Michigan that the school supports this type of project?

The Medical School recognizes that, in addition to students growing into competent and compassionate physicians who pursue professional excellence, promoting educational activities that foster humanism adds great value to students' growth. The reflection and writing of the types of essays that this book will feature are an example of such an activity.

What would you say to a prospective student about the benefits of attending the University of Michigan for medical school?

I think that the University of Michigan Medical School is a wonderful place to begin the lifelong process of becoming a doctor. There are enthusiastic, caring and brilliant co-students, and a supportive environment. You have opportunities to engage with faculty in so many spheres that you'll find those mentors who will help take your education to the next level.