Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Lucy Desmond on "beauty within medicine"

Osmosis Team
Published on Jul 19, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Today on the Osmosis blog, we’re interviewing Dr. Lucy Desmond, Founder and Director of beauty within medicine. This organization aims to revolutionize medical education by breaking down stigma and celebrating diversity and equality, creating a worldwide community of more informed health professionals and patients. 

How did you first become interested in medicine? 

A requirement for ongoing learning and meaningful human connection is what drew me to medicine. It is an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to listen to people’s stories. Medicine provides you with daily encounters or ‘moments of potential’ to do some good. It might simply be actively listening to someone to let them know that they have been heard, it might be holding a person’s hand who does not have anyone else to do it, or it might be giving bad news in the most compassionate way you can. 

I also love to learn. The expectation that doctors should continually learn is a true gift. 

What led you to pursue medical education?

A lack of sleep and a big dream! Towards the end of my first year working as a doctor I started experiencing an uncontrolled flood of ideas that regularly woke me in the middle of the night. I had already accepted a job to commence my basic physicians training (BPT) the following year, however, I felt I didn’t have a choice other than to take a leap of faith and run with a crazy idea—beauty within medicine. BPT certainly remains something I hope to pursue in the future. 

By taking this leap, I have been fortunate enough to create my own ‘ideal week’ which includes clinical work, tutoring medical students at the University of Melbourne and by the bedside at Western Health, speaking at various conferences, being a guest lecturer at several Universities and channelling my creativity into beauty within medicine content creation. 

February 1 2020 marked one year since I first sat down to start beauty within medicine and it has been an incredible year, full of opportunity and excitement. At beauty within medicine we aim to provide daily, freely accessible content via social media and free exclusive monthly content to our community members who sign up online. We believe medical education is socially outdated and we are keen to change that by creating a series of high-yield design-driven infographic medical texts that will celebrate diversity and be inclusive of all. We hope these will reshape the foundational resources available in medicine for visual and tactile learners. 

I love medical education and feel that 2020 is full of potential for ongoing growth.

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Can you share some backstory on how you got to where you are right now? 

Discovering something that I am passionate about and actively choosing to pursue it has led me to exactly where I am right now. Being provided with an education, supported by a loving family who embrace difference and always being encouraged to dream are the reasons that an idea has become an action. 

While I deviated from the pathway on several occasions during this journey nothing else seemed to interest me other than medicine. It seemed to be the only profession that combined two things that I loved so much—a requirement for ongoing learning and meaningful human connection.

While I do enjoy working clinically, I felt a pull towards something more than traditional pathway. Frustrated by the socially outdated approach of the medical education and health care system, I decided to step off the “train tracks of medicine” (medical school—intern—resident—registrar—consultant) and now I am exactly where I am meant to be. 

We are so lucky in medicine because if you go looking, you will see that all of the doors have already opened to pathways you never even dreamed of. If you unearth your passion—you can write…you can create…you can do whatever it is that you want to do. 

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What are 2–3 changes you would like to see in the current medical education system? 

I believe medical education is socially outdated and so there are so many things I would love to change. However, if given only three, these are the things I would change first…

Start educating in shades of grey rather than in black and white

Student doctors are often taught in black and white because teaching complexity is extremely difficult and teaching methods have not evolved at the same speed that knowledge has been gained. Unfortunately, remaining in this educational comfort zone creates unconscious bias. 

We learn to think in terms of what is ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’, rather than variations that land somewhere on a broad spectrum which can be applied to everything. 

A key example of this is the presentation of an acute myocardial infarction (AMI, colloquially known as a “heart attack”). Commonly taught as retrosternal chest pain radiating to the left jaw and/or left arm associated with dyspnoea, palpitations, dizziness and diaphoresis in an individual with known cardiovascular risk factors (smoking, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia etc.). However, this is ‘typical’ and not always the presentation as it is so often taught. Other presentations are possible and may be incredibly subtle. 

Such atypical presentations have in fact been found to most commonly occur in individuals assigned female at birth. Who knows how many AMIs have been missed?!

Removing graded assessments that dictate future job prospects

We need to shift away from an individual’s desire to be the best and instead focus on a group's desire to learn. We should all study because we find it interesting and want to share our thoughts with our colleagues and patients. This passion for learning can be hard to maintain with the overwhelming volume of content. Supporting each other rather than competing will be the change we need to bring back the joy of learning, reduce the mental health burden our industry suffers and revolutionize  patient care.

Altering the acceptance criteria for medicine at all Universities to include (and welcome) those with a disability

Physical impairment does not mean cognitive impairment. Even the way individuals are accepted into medical school is socially outdated. 

Osmosis illustration of a quote talking about the power of cooperation among medical students.

What are 2–3 changes you would like to see in the healthcare system in your country?

Improve national health literacy by rolling-out adequate health education programs in primary and secondary schools.  

Ideally medical education, including basic anatomy, should start for everyone at primary school level. It astounds me that we all roam around in these incredible bodies and yet very few people know their internal structure, let alone function. 

By introducing medical education to everyone at such a young age, individuals would have a greater understanding of concerning symptoms and signs, the importance of lifestyle choices and the beauty within anatomical variation. I believe people would more readily engage in preventative health care, present earlier to a doctor, and be able to actually provide informed consent when requiring surgery (e.g. appendectomy for acute appendicitis).

Mandatory requirements for electronic medical records (EMR) and forms at hospitals and medical practices to provide a blank space rather than a checkbox for sex, gender identity and pronouns. 

Such a simple change would remove stigma, allow all individuals to feel welcome to receive healthcare anywhere and freedom to express themselves within all medical environments. Individuals should not feel prevented from seeking healthcare due to socially outdated administrative forms.  

Cost transparency

While the Australian healthcare system is certainly not perfect, we are incredibly lucky that it provides a basic level of healthcare to everyone. With our growing population there is a lot of pressure currently on our public hospitals including extended waiting times in Emergency Departments. Many individual’s expectations of prompt care regardless of the type of presentation does not always meet reality. 

Similarly, pressure is placed on junior medical staff to provide an efficient, effective and closely monitored level of service despite inadequate staffing, regular unpaid overtime, increased number and complexity of patients and rapid discharges. 

I was discussing the limitations of our healthcare system once with an insightful ED physician, Dr. Terence Yuen, who suggested that if everyone was provided with a bill from their hospital stay to highlight the true cost of healthcare people would be more patient with the system and less aggressive towards staff. It all comes back to education. 

Do you have any final thoughts regarding the medical profession as a whole?

Medical education should not be shrouded in secrecy or reserved just for doctors and other professions within the health sector. Without a doubt, introducing medical education through the schooling system at an early age will improve health literacy, lifestyle choices, and health outcomes. It is all about education. 

About Dr. Desmond

Dr. Lucy Desmond is a doctor, author, and speaker who believes in better medicine: better relationships with patients, more inclusive processes in hospitals and innovative resources for students and doctors alike. After having five medical journal articles accepted for publication in her first year of submitting research, Lucy realized that she wanted to be on the front lines of medical education by creating high-yield beautifully designed infographic textbooks and digital content for medical students. Celebrating the joy of learning and fighting for equality & diversity in medicine are what drives Lucy to pursue the project, called beauty within medicine.

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