Reflections on history of medicine as a residency research project

Chantelle Champagne, MD, FRCPC

During my pediatrics residency, I elected to complete a project in the History of Medicine to fulfill the mandatory research criteria of our program, and it was the best decision that I could have made. I have always been interested in history, and had some experience with a history of medicine project in medical school—so it seemed like a natural fit for me to find an interesting history topic, instead of the usual chart review or quality improvement project.

Despite some initial raised eyebrows when I explained what I wanted to do, I had the full support of our residency research coordinator and was able to find two mentors – one with expertise in history of medicine, and another with expertise in the medical specialty pertinent to my topic. They helped me narrow my research question to explore the recent history of providing cardiac repairs to children with Down syndrome, using both scientific and sociological sources to identify the reasons that these children were often denied cardiac repairs.

Because I did not have to apply for ethics approval or wait for data to be collected, I was able to effectively use my designated research blocks. By the end of my first year, I had a confirmed topic, detailed outline, and most of my sources identified. By the end of my second year, I had a full draft of my manuscript completed. That left me ample time to seek feedback, find publication opportunities, and prepare presentations for local research days. Because I was truly interested and invested in the project, it never became boring or frustrating. It was also a great experience to be able to carry the entire project through from conception to publication, instead of just finishing someone else’s project or writing up their data.

Through this project I was able to network with experts in the fields of history and ethics, complete my project according to a realistic timeline, and publish my work in a high impact journal. Although some staff-persons and researchers were initially skeptical about how applicable my work was to modern-day medicine, it was a great opportunity for me to draw modern day parallels in clinical decision making, and generate fascinating discussions about how we might avoid the mistakes of the past.

The history of medicine is a valuable aspect of medical research, and provides an important lens through which we view modern clinical research. It is definitely a viable option for residency research projects, and should be encouraged and supported in all programs.