Megan Helzner

Megan Helzner


It’s been several months since the American Association of Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) “Learn Serve Lead” conference and, in some ways, the period from mid-November when the conference took place until now feels like years. Indeed, a lot has happened in our world.

It can be hard to hold on to reflections from a conference, no matter how valuable—and the 2020 AAMC conference was extremely valuable. As we enter into a new year, I wanted to return to my takeaways and learnings from the conference:

1. Clear theme that sums up 2020—In different ways, last year taught us about the necessity of cutting out the noise and focusing on what really matters. The AAMC’s “Learn Serve Lead” conference themes reflected this focus on the essential, centering (1) COVID-19 and its effects on medical schools, teaching hospitals, our country and our world, and (2) racial bias, overt discrimination, gender harassment, and inequities in academic medicine. The AAMC’s approach of focusing on just two themes, when it could have focused on many, reflected what I believe is a widely felt desire or goal of 2020, which is to streamline and get back to basics. The conference content itself is a landmark in time—two critical and unforgettable themes from a year that defies words and description.

2. Confluence of humanities, specifically museums, and medicine—As a student of the liberal arts and someone who spent a sizable portion of my career in museums, I found the overlap between medicine and museums at this conference striking. Among the many powerful speakers at the conference were AAMC President and CEO, David Skorton, MD (who previously served as the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), and Lonnie Bunch III (founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, current secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions, and notably, father of an emergency room physician).

What does this observation about the presence of museums at the AAMC conference have to do with anything? Speaking from my own experience, I can say that museums encourage visitors to observe deeply and to find different interpretations of the same work, historical period, or discovery; the liberal arts encourage well roundedness for graduates. I know that the same skills of observation, interpretation, synthesis, and cross-disciplinary connection are essential in medicine. The idea of cross-profession learning (specifically medicine and museums) is getting more traction. Curious? These two pieces may be of interest:

3. Recruiting, training, and retaining underrepresented minorities (URMs)—From the age of 14, as a female, I preferred seeing a woman provider for my primary medical care. The likeness that I felt with my primary care physician made me feel at ease, a feeling many share. In order to create that sense of comfort and trust between providers and patients—a feeling that I was so fortunate to have and which we know promotes positive health outcomes—it is known in academic medicine that we as a nation need to invest in pipeline development for the next generation of healthcare providers. All people should have access to physicians to whom they can relate. There are so many well-known reasons for medical schools to create, strengthen, and foster a pipeline of diverse applicants. It was enlightening and inspiring to hear about the strategic ways that medical educators at academic medical centers are, for example, partnering with their colleagues in government relations to push for legislation that provides funding to open doors to applicants—things like the Health Careers Opportunity Program of HRSA. The pipeline for practitioners begins early—as early as elementary or middle school and the messages that young people hear then. The issues are systemic and the work takes time and will. As I reflect on the conference and our work at CFAR, I think back to a particular client engagement. We had the privilege of supporting the leaders of a groundbreaking program aimed at recruiting, retaining, and graduating URMs to attend medical school and other health professions schools.

4. Virtual can be personal—2020 has stretched many of us to consider how we can create real connection with colleagues, clients, and loved ones through the screen. I was wowed by how the “Learn Serve Lead” organizers and presenters managed to make this nearly 5,000-person conference feel human and approachable. Truthfully, I expected it would be tough to plug in—and it was anything but! Musical interludes by Voices of Service, a singing quartet of active-duty Army members and veterans and past finalists on America’s Got Talent moved me deeply. Dr. Elvis Francois’s performance of “Lean on Me” brought me to tears. Observing and hearing about the deep challenges that health professionals and patients have felt through this time, the invitation to “lean on me” was an especially powerful one. Seeing Francois, this orthopedic surgeon who is finishing his post-graduate medical training share his gift of song and how music has changed his medical practice was tremendous. Both performances transported me from sitting behind a screen by myself to being in community with the other conferees. I am hanging onto the question of how I can infuse what I experienced at “Learn Serve Lead” into the other conferences and calls that I join.

2020 was a year that I think many of us will remember vividly. The fear, pain, and loneliness; the hope for better times ahead; the motivation to do more, better. Likewise, I will look back on the experience of attending the 2020 AAMC conference in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the critical racial reckoning in our country as an unforgettable chapter and time—it was an honor to learn from people on the forefront of combatting COVID-19 and systemic racism.

Specifically, I will remember (1) how the AAMC boldly focused on these two, essential topics; (2) how medicine and museums can be mutually reinforcing; (3) how the AAMC has made it a priority to diversify medicine; and (4) how truly talented physicians, trainees, and physician leaders are at creating connection, even when it’s extremely challenging.