“You are one to the world, but to one, you are the world.”
I heard this quote for the first time during undergrad at Cottage Hospital in Southern California, when I was wearing a Raggedy Anne costume while visiting patients on the oncology and hospice floors. It was an older gentleman I visited twice weekly in the hospital who said it to me, and it had a lasting impact.
When I got home that night, I journaled about my experience because I wanted to remember it. Years later, I reworked this detailed encounter into my personal statement for admission to medical school.
I write so I don’t forget
I have always been a writer, but over the years, I have learned that I write out of fear that I might forget some of the most incredible moments and experiences. I write to remember my world travels, deep conversations I’ve had with patients, and other emotional encounters. Writing allows me to express myself, and it gives me the gift of re-experiencing these moments when I go back and read my work.
"I believe that I am a writer first and a physician second; it has taken me years to admit this."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
I also believe that every physician is a writer in some form. After all, a major part of our job is to communicate with patients in succinct, empathetic, and understandable ways. I am a doctor who loves to write, and thankfully, I have made a career out of both.
Writing is part of the physician's job description
Physicians spend decades reading to study medicine and to keep up with current medical literature.
Avid readers generally make decent writers, because readers are constantly exposed to language, grammar, and syntax. I have been an avid reader since I was a child. I would stay awake past bedtime and hide in my closet with a night lamp to finish my current book. I still read voraciously, and I can’t walk past a bookstore without stopping to browse. I love to read, and as a result, I love to write.
Writing can be healing
Writing is a form of creating, and creating is an act of processing the thoughts and emotions that arise while caring for patients and in my personal life. Physicians often need to process their emotions throughout the day, and writing can be a therapeutic way to work through them. That’s why I think that, in a way, writing is healing.
Writing is a way to communicate with our patients
Writing is also a form of communication. I truly believe one cannot be a good doctor without the ability to effectively communicate on paper. We write notes in our daily charts, and when these notes are not written with clarity and accuracy, it can jeopardize the well-being of our patients and their loved ones.
Written notes in charts are the communication handoffs between physicians taking care of the same patient.
When this written communication is faulty, these transitions have been shown to cause medical errors, readmissions to hospitals, unnecessary tests, and even death. Patient care and medical records are just one aspect of a physician’s role.
Writing is a way to educate our society
Physician’s also have a duty to educate society by providing expert advice on matters of health and well-being. This is primarily done through writing or public speaking, both of which can reach a large audience. Whether it is medical journals, blogs, podcasts, conferences, books, or research papers, physicians should have some basic ability to discuss health and healthcare in ways that are accessible, interesting, and informative to people with no medical training.
"You don’t have to take a writing workshop or a public medical writing course to be a good communicator and storyteller."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
You don’t even have to enjoy writing, but you should be able to translate confusing medical jargon into language a lay person can understand.
Physicians as storytellers
Storytelling can reveal what the world of medicine is really like. We can do this by sharing stories of patient encounters. We also spend a good chunk of our lives listening to our patients' stories, so it is only natural we would want to retell these tales.
Maybe we want to uncover the truths of our broken medical system, or give insight into the realities of death and dying. Maybe we want to reform healthcare by writing about the political side of medicine. Perhaps we want to tell stories about what it means to be sick, or to share our joys in helping people heal.
Writing is a way to advocate for your patients
Today, I have an outdoor adventure blog, and I write professionally in the mental health and primary care realm of medicine. Through my writings, I hope to educate, inspire, and evoke emotions in my readership. I also write to advocate for my patients, especially those who cannot speak up for themselves.
So many patients come from underserved social and economic backgrounds and cannot or do not know how to use their voice, and as a result, their stories are often hidden from the media or major press. I try to be their voice.
I believe writing as a doctor is essential for patient care, and because it's a way to educate the general public, a form of therapy, a creative outlet, and a potential source of revenue. But also, because through their stories, doctors can inspire each other and others around them. An inspiring story is one worth telling.
Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.