This week's Vitals: Med student's vision of inclusive health care lands Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Award

Social justice advocate Julianna Deutscher recognized as future innovator of health care in Canada.

Kirsten Bauer - 25 October 2016

Long before Julianna Deutscher became interested in medicine she was driven by her curiosity about different cultures and advocating for human rights. From kindergarten in Texas to elementary school in Ontario and junior high in southern Holland, exposure to different cultures sparked an interest in global issues that eventually led to an awareness of human suffering in different parts of the world.

Now a third-year medical student, Deutscher is being recognized nationally for her social justice work as winner of the 2016 Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Award for the University of Alberta. Receiving this prestigious award, which includes a cash prize and travel funding to attend an annual meeting in Quebec City, came as a surprise for Deutscher, who feels honoured to be counted among the top ranking students being recognized across Canada.

Deutscher was always intrigued by languages and culture, and originally planned to become a human rights lawyer, until an experience in rural Kenya piqued her interest in medicine.

"I did an Ecology course in Kenya, and the instructor had set up tours of some of the health facilities, and I think that opened my eyes to the fact that as a physician, you can do a lot in terms of advocacy and social justice work. I never really associated that with physicians before. I was more aware that as a lawyer you can go through the international court of justice, but it was an eye-opener to see that level of need in rural Kenya. And also, how doctors can help fulfill that need."

This, coupled with a parallel experience in which she helped her grandfather navigate his treatment plan, brought about a personal motivation to improve the system.

"My Grandpa was really sick with terminal cancer, so I had been going into the hospital with him, and we had a bit of a negative experience," she says. "But I think that's actually what ended up driving me into medicine - seeing how that could be improved, and seeing how much of an impact it had once he had a really good physician, and how much that changed his whole attitude towards his prognosis and just having a better outlook about everything. That's when I realized that I was really passionate about medicine."

To date, Deutscher has championed numerous causes, including advocating for victims of human trafficking as the youngest board member of the Magdalene House Society, completing a global health project in rural Peru, leading Indigenous health initiatives and LGBTQ health advocacy projects. She believes that understanding where her patients come from and being compassionate about the struggles they face will make her a better physician. Her ultimate goal is to work in a practice that advocates for vulnerable people, and she sees the CMHF award as a win for future health care initiatives.

"I noticed that basically every recipient this year is involved in global health and advocacy work, in one project or another. It was so nice to see that at this level, people are choosing to recognize that work. Twenty years ago, I think they supported other important aspects of medicine like research, so for me it was just nice to have something saying, 'you know what, you're doing good work, keep doing that'."

Deutscher feels fortunate to have a strong support network that motivates her to keep going. In medical school, she is learning the importance of work-life balance with the coaching of a few key faculty mentors, who are helping her grapple with the many responsibilities of a budding clinician. Her parents, busy professionals themselves, always modeled a spirit of compassion, working with the United Way and other projects in their community. Various teachers throughout her life have also noticed her passion for learning about other cultures and have taken steps to foster her curiosity.

"And even though my brother is younger than me, I've always looked up to him too," Deutscher reflects. "He's always been a huge support encouraging me to do the work I love to do."