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Academic Medicine Celebrates 90 years

Rebecca Greenberg
November 22, 2016

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It’s been nearly a century since then AAMC Secretary Treasurer Fred Zapffe, MD, came up with an idea for a new publication that would be, in his words, “devoted wholly to furthering medical education.” What started as a small, in-house quarterly, has now become an editorially-independent, leading journal in its field.

Today’s journal, Academic Medicine, recently achieved new acclaim under the leadership of current senior director of publishing, Anne Farmakidis, and managing editor, Mary Beth DeVilbiss. Based on its 2015 Journal Impact Factor score—a measurement that indicates how many times a journal is cited—Thomson Reuters placed Academic Medicine at the top of its Education, Scientific Disciplines category.

The first iteration of what eventually became today’s journal was published in 1926 as the Bulletin of the Association of American Medical Colleges, under Zapffe’s leadership. Zapffe’s vision was to create the first publication to “serve as a medium for disseminating views on medical pedagogy.” Soon after its debut, the Bulletin was distributed internationally.

“Its appearance was hailed with delight,” wrote Zapffe, “and many commendatory letters have been received, making it very evident that a publication of this sort is not only needed but that it is wanted.”

In 1929, the journal’s name was changed to the Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, denoting its scholarly status. Production increased to six time per year in 1930 and continued throughout World War II. The editorial board in 1951 changed the name for a third time to The Journal of Medical Education to better reflect “the contents and the field covered,” according to Zapffe.

During the early years, the journal centered on medical education scholarship but also served as a space to share news and activities of the academic medicine community. A 1936 article, for example, described a post-AAMC convention Caribbean cruise with a port of call in Cuba so guests could visit the Medical College of the University of Havana.” The journal became a monthly publication in 1953, running peer-reviewed articles related to the structure and process of physician education. This theme continued for four decades.

A turning point

In the 1980s, medical education remained the primary focus, but the journal also covered lighter topics related to day-to-day concerns of medical school faculty, according to senior staff editor, Toni Gallo. For instance, an article from 1980 outlined the role of a medical school dean’s wife.

But by the mid-1980s, the world of academic medicine had become increasingly complex. To broaden the journal’s scope, then AAMC President Robert G. Petersdorf, MD, (1986–1994) along with former AAMC President John A.D. Cooper, MD, (1969–1986) decided to restructure the journal, reinforcing its commitment to rigorous, medical education scholarship, at the same time publishing articles on policy discussions. The journal was renamed Academic Medicine to reflect this broader focus.

“Announcements had been made about when the newly focused journal would appear, and the clock was running the whole time,” said Addeane Caelleigh, former editor in chief who oversaw the changes. The redesigned journal was introduced in 1989.

Initially, medical education researchers worried that the broader focus would diminish their contributions, according to Caelleigh, “but after the ‘new’ journal’s visibility increased in wider communities, they saw [the change] as a good thing.”

Al Bradford, who became deputy editor at the time of the upgrade, said Caelleigh instituted a policy that the journal’s staff should have “collegial, rather than authoritarian” relationships with authors. “We want to work with [the authors] to make their articles shine and help clarify their messages,” he said, noting that staff still apply substantive, or in-depth editing.

Raising the bar

In 2000, the journal was published online for the first time. Shortly after, AAMC’s senior vice president of Medical Education, Michael Whitcomb, MD, (2002–2007) took the helm as editor in chief. He helped to organize a series of quality improvements and began soliciting papers for theme issues.

“If I knew there was a particular program being developed at one of the medical schools, I would encourage people from the school to send in articles,” Whitcomb said. The effort to generate new content paid off, he added.  “Over time, we were able to substantially upgrade the quality and importance of the journal, which was a significant contribution to the [academic medicine] community at large.”

“What I find most exciting is we are right at the intersection of all of these various worlds—education, research, clinical care delivery, and administration.”

David Sklar, MD
University of New Mexico School of Medicine

In 2007, the AAMC took several steps to solidify the journal’s editorial independence from the AAMC. The first was the appointment of an oversight committee responsible for the journal’s governance and the selection and annual review of the editor in chief.  The second was installing the first editor in chief from outside the AAMC, Steven Kanter, MD, (2008–2012), who maintained his position as vice dean at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine during his term. According to Kanter, his deanship informed his role as editor. “I was immersed every day on the ground with the issues and the tensions and the values in the academic medicine community, so I had firsthand knowledge.”

Staff worked hard to improve the journal’s online presence during Kanter’s tenure, launching an Academic Medicine app in 2012. In addition, the journal’s covers started featuring original works of art submitted by the academic medicine community.

Explaining the choice, Kanter said, “Art is one way of helping us broaden and deepen our thinking. It’s a way of helping us express ideas that maybe cannot be expressed in other ways.”

Legacy

In recent years, the journal has covered many significant topics—the 100th anniversary of the Flexner Report in 2010, the emergence of competency-based education, and the need for more cultural sensitivity in clinical care, to name a few.

It has also expanded its reach with a website that allows free access to the entire archive, topical collections, published ahead-of-print articles, and a podcast.

And the journal continues to evolve.

David Sklar, MD, the current editor in chief said, “What I find most exciting is we are right at the intersection of all of these various worlds—education, research, clinical care delivery, and administration. It’s very exciting to be able to help people have a conversation around changes in the health care system and hopefully help them make good decisions that will help our future population.”

After more than 25 years at Academic Medicine, Bradford recently retired, but still edits for the journal on a freelance basis. He observed that all the editors in chief had distinct styles. He described Caelleigh as having the expertise needed to modernize the journal and greatly expand its subject matter, Whitcomb as writing hard-hitting editorials, and Kanter as deeply invested in the concerns of the academic medicine community. Sklar, with his ongoing work as an emergency physician, has his “feet in the trenches,” Bradford said.

While working late one night, Bradford received an unexpected reminder of the journal’s importance to the academic medicine community. A resident physician from a nearby hospital needed to get into the AAMC building to turn in some forms at the last minute, Bradford recalled. “I told him I would submit the forms for him first thing in the morning. He thanked me profusely, and then said, ‘Our program director insists that we read the journal no matter how busy we are—we read every issue and we like it.’ That was great to hear.”

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