From social justice advocate to first responder in the ER

Canadian Medical Association's 150th anniversary scholar Julianna Deutscher heads to Toronto for Emergency Medicine residency

Kirsten Bauer - 5 June 2018

University of Alberta medical school grad Julianna Deutscher, '18 MD, is trading in her white coat for emergency room scrubs. She has always wanted to work with vulnerable populations but it was her first exposure to an opioid overdose, while on a rural medicine rotation in Whitecourt, Alberta, that eventually set her on a course to pursue the packed emergency rooms of Toronto for an Emergency Medicine residency.

Deutscher worked to improve opiate addiction support in Whitecourt by building relationships within the local health support network, taking her cue from the Addiction Recovery and Community Health Clinic program (ARCH) led by ER physician Kathryn Dong, '99 MD, and run out of the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton.

"A lot of the resources don't exist rurally, but in Whitecourt we have addiction services and a homeless shelter, and a doctor who is prescribing suboxone, which is a drug replacement therapy similar to methadone to help people with opiate addiction. So we had all these pieces there, but nobody was talking to each other, so I started looking at what the ARCH program is doing here in Edmonton, and we were able to bring some of that to Whitecourt."

Deutscher hopes that her project can act as a framework for other communities, to ensure that resources are connecting with each other to provide top notch addiction and mental health support.

The experience in Whitecourt ultimately confirmed her passion for Emergency Medicine.

"It's something that's so easily facilitated from the emergency room, because oftentimes those patients aren't booking themselves an appointment at a family doctor. They're coming into the ER when they've reached the end of their resources, and that's your chance as a physician to catch the patients. I think in the past there were a lot of misconceptions about drug use and mental health and patients would get turned away. But I like to think that perception is changing."

Taking strong voices for change to Parliament Hill

As a med student, Deutscher's social justice advocacy work with victims of human trafficking was recognized nationally, landing her with a Canadian Medical Hall of Fame award, and the 2018 Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation and the Gold Humanism Society. This annual award honours one graduating student for exemplifying outstanding humanism in medicine.

She also recently travelled to Ottawa for the Canadian Federation of Medical Students' (CFMC) National Day of Action, an annual meeting with Members of Parliament to lobby for health care reform.

This year, more than 70 medical students from across the country came together to advocate for change in health care governance. This year's topic was Indigenous mental health.

Deutscher says all four UAlberta MD cohorts (graduating classes of 2018 through 2021) sent representation. There was significant representation from students that identified as First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) from across Canada and students from each province consulted with their local elders and Indigenous health groups to develop the overarching recommendations.

"This was something that was really well done. In all of the advocacy work I've done, it's always been a priority for me to actually work with the population that's being affected, instead of just being on our high horse and telling people what we as physicians think they need to do," said Deutscher.

UAlberta's first CMA 150th Anniversary Scholar

Deutscher feels like she has a lot to learn about getting by in Toronto, especially when it comes to the high cost of living. In spite of her childhood travelling with globe-trotting parents, she has always lived in smaller communities.

"It's kind of exciting and terrifying all at the same time. I moved around my whole life, so the idea of moving somewhere new isn't really what terrifies me so much as the size of the city. Edmonton is the biggest community I've ever lived in. Before that I was in Red Deer, and then before that an even smaller town in Ontario," Deutscher said. "But what's really nice is that some of my close friends also matched to Toronto, as well as people I've worked with on advocacy projects. So I'm actually going to have a pretty good support network there."

A 150th Anniversary Scholarship from the CMA Foundation should provide a financial cushion until she gets settled. The CMA Foundation is a partnership with MD Financial Management and Joule™ which provides charitable giving to further excellence in health care.

As part of the CMA's 150th anniversary celebration, each medical school across Canada received the gift of funds from the CMA Foundation for a $15,000 scholarship for "student leaders who best represent the values of the medical profession, including honesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, accountability, collaboration and commitment to self-improvement." A $8,500 bursary is also available to students demonstrating financial need.

Deutscher is the first student at the U of A to receive the CMA's 150th Anniversary scholarship, and she is grateful for the CMA Foundation's support while she gets established in residency. As a natural born changemaker, she will likely be inspired to pursue new ways of advancing health systems, and is already considering the ways that she can help.

"Toronto has a huge marginalized population," Deutscher said. "I'm not familiar with what resources already exist, so my plan in that first year of residency is to get a feel for what resources are there, then potentially do some electives at some point with the ARCH team back in Edmonton, and then see how to improve what already exists in Toronto."

The greatest hurdle now will be leaving her mentors at the U of A behind. According to Mel Lewis, associate dean of the Learner Advocacy & Wellness Office and one of Julianna's mentors, the bittersweet goodbye is mutual.

"This is one of those times where the teacher has become the student, and I have no doubt she will have an incredible career," Lewis said. "Julianna is truly inspirational and one of the most genuine individuals I have met. I am very fortunate to have crossed paths with her."