Monday, November 23, 2009

Teaching doctors how to write

Most doctors are very inhibited about writing. Since they are science students, writing is often not their forte. Unfortunately, this means they cannot share their expertise with the rest of the world and many will take their lifetime’s clinical wisdom with them to the grave.

What can we do to prevent this ?

In the past, doctors did not have much opportunity to publish or write about their clinical experience. Most doctors would write only for medical journals, which had a very rigid format and limited space, which means most never ever managed to get a single article in print. This was a big problem especially for Indian doctors , because most medical journals were published in the West.

The good news is that thanks to the web, anyone who wants to write can do so . I feel doctors have an obligation to share their wisdom – and the best way to do so is by publishing online. There are many ways of doing so – including: writing a blog; creating a website; podcasting for those who’d rather not write; or even videocasting on youtube !

The best way is to start small – and the trick is to start right now ! You can start by doing just one blog post daily, for example. Setting up a blog is easy – and free !

What can you write about ? The good thing about being a doctor is that you hear stories daily ! Because you see interesting patients ( what doctors call “cases”) daily, you have lots of stories. Instead of just discussing these with other doctors in the hospital cafeteria, why not share these with everyone through your blog ?

Just write about the most memorable patient you saw today. Every patient has an interesting story to tell – you just need to hear it and re-tell it ! As a doctor, you write every day. Most of it is your patient’s history, when you fill in his medical records. All you need to do is to re-tell the story in a more entertaining style for others ! Good writing is just a conversation with the reader – and since you talk all day long, all you need to do is to capture your conversation in words !

Doctors are busy and it can be hard to find the time to write. This is why discipline is so important – and it’s a good idea to plan to do a post on your blog daily. The oftener you do it, the easier it will become !

If you are unsure, you might want to dictate and then ask your secretary to type this out for you. The other option is to hire a ghost writer for one or two weeks , to help you get kick started !

Try asking yourself these simple questions - Who ? What ? Why ? When ? Where ? Why not ? Answer these, one paragraph at a time – and hey presto – you have a complete article ! It’s also very helpful to draw a mindmap, as this is a very useful way of providing new ideas. Keep each article short – try to cover only one idea at one time.

Let’s try this for this particular article. This could be seen to be a series of answers to the following questions !
Why should doctors write ?
Why don’t they ?
How can they do this ?
What technique should they use ?
Where should they write ?
When ?
( Go back and read the article, and you’ll see that each paragraph is an answer to these questions !)

What about the mechanics of actually writing ? This is amazingly easy, once you start ! Start with a blank sheet, and just keep or writing. This is the equivalent of a verbal diarrhea – don’t stop, until you have run out of ideas. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or logic – you are just trying to capture all your thoughts, then they are fresh.

Then, the actual process of writing starts. Start converting your ideas into sentences , so that they make sense and are complete.

Put this away for 24 hours, and then look at it again. You are now ready to rewrite, so that it becomes more coherent. Don't aim for perfection and try not to be critical.

Finally, read it once more after another day, and start editing it. This can be hard work, because having to delete your beautifully crafted prose can be heart-breaking – but this is what will make you a good writer. As Thomas Sowell says, “ The only way I know to become a good writer is to be a bad writer and keep on improving. “

Do you get brain freeze when you see a blank page ? Then an easy option is to download the wikipedia article on this topic, and modify it. Rewriting what someone else has written is often easier than starting from scratch !

Is English a foreign language for you ? Are you diffident about your English skills. This is even better - write in your local language ! There’s very little competition, so your chances of being able to stand out and shine are even better !

Finally, I agree writing can be hard work, but it's well worth the effort ! It will become easier with time - I promise !


  1. Anonymous12:06 AM

    there is a thing called patient confidentiality you know...

  2. Yes, of course ! It's easy to anonymise these reports to protect patient confidentiality !

    Dr Aniruddha Malpani, MD
    Malpani Infertility Clinic, Jamuna Sagar, SBS Road, Colaba
    Bombay 400 005. India
    Tel: 91-22-22151065, 22151066, 2218 3270
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    Helping you to build your family !

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