From having a basic knowledge of neurochemistry to mastering the effective use of statistics, the skill set of today’s physician is more expansive than ever. Now you can add writing to that list, according to Louise Aronson, M.D., M.F.A., who spoke at the eleventh annual Writers’ Workshop medical grand rounds on January 30. The title of her talk was “Public Medical Communication: An Emerging Skill Set for 21st–Century Health Professionals.”
“You don’t have to write like Chekhov,” she said. “You just have to write competently, and you got into medical school, so we know you can do that.” Aronson, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), got her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and completed a geriatrics fellowship at UCSF. She went on to get a master’s degree in fiction writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and has been working as a physician–author ever since. Her book A History of the Present Illness, which examines health and illness in the United States through the life stories of individual patients and physicians, was published in 2013.
Whether it’s writing a blog, an op–ed piece, an article for a medical journal, or a full–length book, public medical communication is becoming an increasingly important skill for physicians to possess, said Aronson. Even medical journals now have “viewpoint” and “perspective” sections.
“We lost for years the opportunity to influence policy and care,” Aronson said, adding that writing is a “great way to have an impact and advance your career.” She recommended getting started by writing an op–ed piece. “Write about one patient’s case. Become an expert and own that expertise.”
Aronson said that in the past doctors didn’t communicate much with the public; and if they did, it was simply to deliver a diagnosis and a treatment plan. That has changed, she said. “Today, interaction with the public is bidirectional. It’s multimedia, very democratic, and interactive. It’s a really different world,” Aronson said. Her advice to young doctors is to “put yourself out there. Give expert advice to society, not just your patients. Cull information and curate it so people can interface with it.”
The Writers’ Workshop is an annual two–day intensive writing workshop for Yale residents in internal medicine and other specialties. Participants are taught the basics of good writing; they then give one another feedback on their stories and essays, work on revisions, and take part in writing exercises. The workshop culminates with a reading, which is typically a standing–room–only event attended by residents, students, and faculty.
Program leaders say that practicing the craft of writing makes physicians better listeners and enhances their powers of observation. It also increases their empathy, helps them appreciate the richness of their patients’ stories, transforms their relationships with patients, and makes them more reflective.
Aronson had this tip for new medical writers: avoid jargon and data. “Speak like a normal person. Humanize your patients. Even doctors will skip over the data parts of a paper, so give your patients a little personality. Humanize them. Cut out the noise of their diagnosis.”