Bridging the gap: Jelena Poleksic integrates history and medicine as first MD+ grad

By Annamaria Leahey

Jelena Poleksic is bringing together her interests in the history of medicine with her MD degree as the first graduate of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry's MD+ stream.

As part of the MD+ international opportunities track, Poleksic took a year of academic leave abroad to complete an MSc in History and Philosophy of Science at University College, London. The MD+ track – unique to Schulich Medicine - allows future doctors to take an ‘individualized’ approach to learning by giving students the time, financial and academic support to pursue professional and graduate training while completing their medical degrees.

It was a perfect fit for Poleksic.

Her passion for both history of medicine and science led her to a career in medicine in hopes of making a lasting and positive impact on the lives of those affected by mental illness. Now she's bringing these interests into the next phase of her career. Poleksic is thrilled to be starting her residency training in Psychiatry at the University of Toronto this July.

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What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine, and how has your experience at Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry helped you achieve your goals? 

Coming from an interdisciplinary background in the arts and sciences, global health, and history, I've always been passionate about finding a career that integrates both the arts and sciences. I've found that in medicine and specifically in psychiatry, where there is a unique artistry involved in integrating the biological, psychological, and sociocultural dimensions of a patient's life into their care.  

Schulich Medicine's encouragement of my leadership and extracurricular interests across history, global health, and medical education, combined with my clinical experiences in psychiatry, have imbued me with diverse perspectives that will strengthen my practice as a psychiatrist. 

What was the highlight of your experience at Schulich? 

It's difficult to select just one highlight! I'd have to say my experiences with the Osler Society – Schulich's history of medicine society - which ultimately paved the way for my experience in the MD+ Program, during which I took a year of academic leave to complete a MSc in History and Philosophy of Science at University College, London. My year abroad (which was also generously supported by a Chevening Scholarship) has been immensely influential in shaping my future career in medicine. I plan to continue enriching my clinical practice with insights from the history of medicine. These achievements would not have been possible without the generous support of the History of Medicine program and other leaders at the School.  

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career in medicine? 

How exciting! It is an immense privilege to have a career in medicine. However, medical training is not without its challenges. I would encourage anyone interested to maintain their hobbies and passions outside of medicine. I would also add that - at least at Schulich - there is support for pursuits that fall beyond the scope of traditional medical curricula. Students should be encouraged to undertake those opportunities as they have the potential to complement their future medical practice, as well as their wellness and personal development.  

What are your future career plans, and how do you hope to make a positive impact in your field? What's next? 

Looking forward, I plan to continue engaging with the history of medicine. I'm currently working on a project that examines how objects found within 19th century asylums can expand our understanding of life within these Victorian institutions. My research inspires me to take a long view of psychiatry's past, present, and future, which broadens my understanding and appreciation of the profession. 

I'm also interested in drawing on my experience in medical education and history to facilitate exposure to the medical or health humanities in residency training. I believe that engagement with the humanities can enhance compassion and reflexivity, thereby contextualizing patient experiences. 

You have focused your published research and leadership efforts on compassion within health-care settings, particularly around mental health. What inspired you to concentrate on this aspect of medicine, and what impact do you hope your work will have on patient care? 

Through my research and clinical experiences, I have gained a nuanced understanding of the pervasive and harmful narratives about psychiatry and mental illness. Having witnessed how stigma deters patients from seeking care and students from pursuing training in psychiatry, I am committed to dismantling narratives that affect patient and practitioner well-being.  

I started this process by publishing about the erosion of compassion in medical education and the stigma experienced by providers who disclose a diagnosis. I am committed to advancing this research throughout my career, one that I hope will reside at the intersection of medical education, humanities research, and compassionate clinical practice focused on improving the lives of those living with mental illness.