Why Storytelling Is Part of Being a Good Doctor

Jerome Groopman in The New Yorker:

It wasn’t until my mid-forties that I began to write about the world of medicine. Before that, I was busy building a career as a hematologist-oncologist: caring for patients with blood diseases, cancer, and, later, aids; establishing a research laboratory; publishing papers; training junior physicians. A doctor’s workload tends to crowd out everything but the most immediate concerns. But, as the years pass, the things you’ve pushed to the back of your mind start to pile up, demanding to be addressed. For two decades, I had seen my patients and their loved ones face some of life’s most uncertain moments, and I now felt driven to bear witness to their stories.

After writing and revising three chapters of what I envisioned as my first book, I showed a draft to my wife, an endocrinologist. She read them, and then looked at me squarely. “They’re awful,” she said. I was taken aback. I’d felt pretty good about what I had produced. “They’re overwritten, with run-on sentences, filled with fancy words,” she explained. I stayed silent, absorbing her criticism. “I can’t really figure out what you’re trying to say here.”

I reread my words and concluded that she was right. What’s more, I realized that many of the problems with my draft reflected the conditioning that occurs during medical training. I had used technical jargon, as if communicating with colleagues, rather than addressing a general reader. And I had removed myself from the stories, a result of the psychological distancing needed to remain steady while helping a patient coping with a life-threatening disease. Finally, I’d focussed on the clinical details of the cases, instead of exploring patients’ emotional and spiritual dilemmas—the very thing that had moved me to write in the first place.

More here.