Monday, April 18, 2011

Non-clinical careers in medical writing

Author: Mehul Sheth, DO FAAP

We have been discussing non-clinical careers and how to evaluate some of the different areas that Dr. Kim mentions in his primer to non-clinical career options. Having discussed administration and finance, we begin discussion of one of the major options for physicians-medical writing. By it’s nature there are hundreds of books that highlight clinicians that have written elegant books. Perhaps that’s because medicine, at it’s finest, is a mystery novel with twists and turns that no one can predict and whose outcome is not guaranteed. This is also why House MD is such a popular show to a wide audience. Each patient is a story and the genres range from comedy to drama to horror with every story is based in fact.

This is perhaps the most difficult topic to find books that would help determine your interest in the field. I have read many a fine book written by physicians (Dr. Gawande’s comes to mind quickly). And although there are good books written by docs, I haven’t found one that goes through the process of creating that tome. Having tried once, and quite poorly at that, to write a chapter, it is quite difficult and can quickly have you pulling your hair out trying to craft out the correct phrase. Here are some books that I thought show the gamut of writing quality.

On one side we have Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. All you need to know about the book is in that title. The book is poorly written, meanders and in the end really doesn’t tell us anything more than what we already knew: pharma companies have a profit motive. It takes the potential of a great story and minimizes it to some cheap laughs and poorly told stories. What I found most interesting was the film adaptation, Love & Other Drugs, was incredibly better than the book. The movie captured more of the potential story than the book it was based on-rare.

White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine falls in the middle here-good but not great. The pharma story gets told here again, but this time Carl Elliott does service to the inherent story of greed getting the better of medicine. The book is readable and tells you something you didn’t know before-how easily the slippery slope of greed leads medicine down the wrong path. If I were to spend all my free time practicing writing, this is probably as good as I would get. Although I believe that given enough time almost anything can be taught, there’s something about writing that can’t be learned. The way a great writer understands his audience and knows how to keep him interested is a difficult find. Abraham Verghese is such a find.

My Own Country: A Doctor's Story is an incredibly fascinating book that intertwines the rise of AIDS as a medical condition with AIDS the social condition. Dr. Verghese does an amazing job putting his own experiences within the context of both the physician trying to solve a medical mystery with the person who is trying to understand the gay community. As any great book, it’s hard to find a natural pause point. You want to stop only when the book is complete. Dr. Verghese takes the potential of a great story that he found himself on the frontlines of and does an amazing job of making it relatable to the reader.

One of the great things about medical writing is that you can do it anytime. Pen and paper is all you need and you can start out small, writing on your own blog or submitting articles to a local paper or small magazine. The tools you need you have already, all it takes is a bit of that elusive free time.

About the author

Mehul Sheth is a Board Certified Pediatrician who works for Allscripts, a leading Health IT company. He has designed and delivered social media strategies for varied medical organizations. He is also an award-winning clinical teacher and holds positions for both local and national AAP committees as well as a career coach. He loves spending his free time with his wife and three kids.

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