Inside AFP

Reflections of an Editorial Fellow



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Am Fam Physician. 2005 Sep 15;72(6):980.

editor’s note: The American Academy of Family Physicians and the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center together announce the John C. Rose Fellowship in medical editing for 2006–2007. This one-year fellowship blends hands-on training in medical writing and editing with an academic faculty position at a major university medical center.

Below, Kenny Lin, M.D., offers thoughts on his experience as editorial fellow in 2004–2005. Dr. Lin currently is a contributing editor for AFP and editor for the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care. He teaches medical students at Georgetown University and continues to practice medicine in the Washington, D.C., area.

After I announced to friends that I had been accepted to the John C. Rose Medical Editing Fellowship, one asked, “So do you think you might ultimately end up in editing rather than in practice?” To me this seemed like a ridiculous question; after all, I had just completed seven years of medical school and a family medicine residency to prepare me to see patients. Yet this comment resurfaced throughout the year as I juggled responsibilities of editing, teaching, and patient care. One morning, a colleague at a busy inner-city clinic, noticing me dash to the computer to check on AFP work between seeing patients, put it more bluntly: “You should make up your mind. Are you going to be an editor or a clinician?”

Advantages of a Dual Career

The writer and physician William Carlos Williams set the twentieth-century standard for the dual medicine/humanities career by arguing that his art was fueled by his work and vice versa. These days, many medical journals recognize the essential contribution of prose to medical practice in humanities-oriented features such as the Journal of the American Medical Association’s “A Piece of My Mind” and AFP’s “Diary from a Week in Practice.” But how does being an editor make one a better clinician? In a thousand different ways, as I found out during my fellowship.

It is a medical editor’s job to review the science of AFP’s articles, making sure that patient-oriented evidence prevails and that controversial issues are fairly balanced. Digesting the latest publications on a medical topic has helped me in countless patient interactions. For example, learning about the potential for harm from high doses of vitamin E while editing a related editorial and later summarizing the original meta-analysis gave me the necessary information to appropriately counsel a patient who was consuming a mega-vitamin supplement.

Another task of the editorial fellow is supervising the illustrations that accompany each article. Medical illustrators require specific directions to draw physical examination maneuvers accurately. I found myself reviewing every aspect of the examination to be certain that my training reflected the state of the art. Sometimes I waded into areas of controversy. For example, what exactly does the Epley maneuver for benign positional vertigo include? The literature was frustratingly inconsistent. To resolve the issue, I finally traced citations back to the source, the original Epley paper, and at my direction, the result was illustrated in “Treatment of Vertigo” in the March 15, 2005, issue of AFP.

Not all of my learning was scientifically noteworthy. Fact-checking is an essential part of any journal apprenticeship, even when the “facts” involve hives allegedly produced by eating cicadas. A letter-writer theorized that his patient, who was allergic to shellfish, developed the reaction because “cicadas, like shellfish, are arthropods.” Oh, really? My subsequent Internet search not only confirmed the cicada’s classification as arthropod, but also turned up several “tasty” recipes for human consumption (though you won’t find these in AFP).

A Worthwhile Experience

At the time, I wasn’t able to give a satisfying answer to my curious friend or my skeptical colleague. But these reflections have convinced me that in addition to making me a better teacher and editor, my fellowship experience also made me a better clinician, even if I wasn’t seeing patients in the office every day. For me, this was a year well spent. You can obtain information on the medical editing fellowship at http://www.aafp.org/fellowships/195.html.


Copyright © 2005 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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