When I reflect back on my first few years of practice, one of the things that surprises me the most is that I’ve had the opportunity to be innovative and creative in a way I never would have guessed would be possible from a career in medicine. Who would have imagined that after four years of medical school at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, three years of residency, one year of chief residency, and three years of fellowship, I’d be…a blogger??
First and foremost, I went to medical school because I wanted to take care of patients. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a psychiatrist – I had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and I was grossed out by blood, smells, and touching bodily fluids, so that pretty much ruled out most of the other options.
Needless to say, I was as shocked as anyone when I started my clerkship and fell in love with surgery. I loved the residents and attending doctors that I worked with in the hospital, I loved the teamwork that I saw in the OR, and I loved how it felt to be able to save someone’s life with my own hands. (Looking back, I’ve always had a knack for building Ikea furniture and continue to find it exceptionally rewarding, so maybe that was an early clue that I’d be drawn to a procedural specialty?)
I ultimately decided to be a gastroenterologist – it combined the instant gratification of “fixing things” that I loved about surgery, some of the more cerebral elements of internal medicine, and that face-to-face relationship with patients that I liked about psychiatry. Next came deciding if I was a researcher or not. To be honest, research was never something I thought about before medical school – I didn’t realize doctors did anything except see patients. Though I explored clinical research throughout my training, I realized it wasn’t really for me in the conventional sense – statistics sometimes make my brain hurt. That being said, I did value being part of the academic community, and have always loved teaching.
Though I’m involved with teaching medical students, residents and fellows, what I’ve realized is that the “learners” who I teach the most are my patients. One of the frustrations I’ve always experienced as a teacher is that there’s too much to teach in a short period of time. This is especially obvious when office visits are finite, but people’s questions about their health are not. I also realized that when medical trainees have gaps in their knowledge, there are clear sources where we refer them. The same wasn’t true for my patients. They were using Google and finding a whole bunch of information, but it ranged in quality from good to terrible. And it was really frustrating for them not to know what to believe. (You can read more about my thoughts on Dr. Google here: http://bellyblog.ca/why-dr-google-doesnt-always-have-your-back ).
This got me thinking: When there’s an identified gap in medical education, you create a curriculum. So why not do the same for my patients? Why not compile some high quality health information, distill it down to the basics of what you really need to know, and write it in easy to understand terms? Let it be a reference guide for patients’ health, except relevant, current, and fun to read. So I started to make handouts. And what I noticed was that my patients were not only reading their handout, but coming back asking me for a few more for their family members and friends. And I thought – in addition to this being a colossal waste of paper, why limit this information to my patients, or to my area of expertise? I figured the dermatologist down the hall was probably doing something similar for skin conditions for her patients, and the cardiologist across the street was, too, and so on. And I realized that in 2015, it didn’t make sense to make handouts. There’s no reason anymore that a patient in my GI office in Canada can’t benefit from the knowledge of a dermatologist in Alaska. And the way we were going to do this was by putting these “handouts” online.
I created my blog, http://bellyblog.ca, in September 2015, and we’ve already reached tens of thousands of readers. We’ve created Pinterest boards with supplemental reading materials, like recipes for gluten-free diets, or good articles about vaccinations. We created a Twitter account and Facebook page to share good information and breaking health-related news that we think is worthy, high-quality and relevant. I’m collaborating with research scientists to study the impact of social media on patient education.
Most importantly though? I’m having the best time. I never would have imagined when I started medical school at UVM that I’d be able to have a fulfilling career as a clinical gastroenterologist, and still be able to teach, write, do research, innovate, create… and have a blog! (OK, OK – that may have something to do with the fact that when I started med school, we were all just beginning to appreciate what it meant to have an email account… but still!)
Talia Zenlea, M.D., graduated from the University of Vermont College of Medicine in 2006. She went on to complete her residency and chief residency in internal medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and gastroenterology fellowship at Harvard University/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She was the director of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases at The Women’s Medicine Collaborative and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University/Alpert School of Medicine, before moving to Toronto, where she currently practices general gastroenterology at Women’s College Hospital, and is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.
She is the founder of http://bellyblog.ca, and together with her husband, a fellow graduate of her medical school class, she has three amazing little boys and a very patient Labradoodle to keep her hands full.