Abraar Karan: Why every doctor should write

Abraar Karan extols the benefits of writing and describes how it’s improved the care he provides to patients

abraarThere was a time, before I was a doctor, when I wasn’t sure if writing was compatible with medicine. I mistakenly thought that medicine was a science, focused on the life and death of cells, rather than an art—about the life and death of people. Now, I am convinced more than ever that being a writer has made me a better doctor.

As a writer, I have learnt how to listen carefully, synthesise information creatively and accurately, and how to communicate clearly and effectively. Through writing, a fleeting moment can become the next big headline. It could be the story that changes policy, improves patient care, or which ensures those who are vulnerable are not forgotten. Through writing, I came to realise that everything in the world is interesting; it just has to be told in the right way. 

As a doctor, communication is as indispensable a skill as being able to auscultate the heart or read an X ray. Without good communication, doctors cannot elicit the history they need to understand how a patient became ill. Nor can they help a patient comprehend their disease, or make sense of their treatment. Miscommunication in healthcare isn’t cheap either—it accounted for an estimated 1.7 billion dollars in healthcare costs through malpractice claims and lawsuits from 2009 to 2013, according to a research report. 

As a writer, I am forced to craft my words in a way that is easy to understand for a broad audience. This means forgoing any medical jargon. Similarly, I cannot write pieces that are longer than a certain word limit, so every word counts. When I talk to my patients, the same is true. I must explain complex clinical topics in a way that anyone could understand. Given the constraints of time during the workday, I must do so efficiently, but without missing any important details. Being a writer has made me much better at these skills.

To be a good writer, I’d argue that one must be an even better listener. Writing has taught me to listen and observe carefully, and to attend to the story that is unfolding beneath every encounter. When I see a patient, I focus especially on their history, as well as on the things the patient is not directly telling me—their body language, what they are wearing, the intonations in their voice, how they interact with their loved ones, and more. Writing teaches you to focus in on this kind of detail; an eye for the minutiae is important because it’s how writers paint finely rendered portraits of their subjects with words. 

These same observation skills are of great use as a doctor as well. During the physical exam, one can glean a lot simply by listening to symptoms carefully and observing a number of subtleties: how a patient is breathing, the way their neck veins are rising and falling, the color of their sclera, the way their nail beds are shaped, the presence or absence of certain rashes, the tautness of the skin on their belly, the swelling in their feet, and much more. All of these details require careful attention, and that attention is something I hone as a writer just as much as I do being a doctor.

Writing has also allowed me to be a better patient advocate. Many of the patients that I care for are from challenging social and economic backgrounds. This holds particularly true for the work I do in global health. As such, their stories are often hidden from the media and lay press. 

Last year, I had a patient who came to my clinic after being displaced by the hurricanes in the Caribbean. She was left without medical care or access to doctors for months, as were hundreds of other people. Through caring for her, and with her permission, I was able to write about her story and argue on a national level for why medical systems need to be especially cognizant of the health effects of natural disasters and the displacement of vulnerable patients. By writing, you have the opportunity to share stories on behalf of your patients when they might not have the means to tell them on their own. Being a writer has given me the power to use my privilege as a platform to advocate for those whom I care about.

I recently gave a talk at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to a room full of doctors about why they should write. I was pleasantly surprised at the response I had. Within a few days, I received several draft essays from colleagues who had incredible stories to share. One wrote about her time working as a doctor in Europe’s biggest refugee camp; another about her research using 3D printing to improve medication adherence and delivery; another about his time being by the side of a patient as he died, and what it taught him about the art of palliative medicine. One lady came up to me after the talk and said that my love for writing had inspired the same in her. 

And so, lastly, every doctor should write because through telling a story, they may inspire another—and that is a story worth telling   

Abraar Karan is an internal medicine resident at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital/ Harvard Medical School and is currently obtaining a diploma in tropical medicine at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Twitter @AbraarKaran

Competing interests: None declared.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.