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Why Health Care Professionals Should Write

Why Health Care Professionals Should Write

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There are a lot of good reasons to learn to write well. But is it really worth it for doctors and nurses – already focused on a challenging field and stretched for time – to learn the craft? Many nursing and medical schools say yes, but their reasons might surprise you.

Dr. Jason Schiffman, editor-in-chief of Anxiety.org, told Career GPS in September that doctors have a responsibility to help patients find good information on the Internet, which means they need to become curators and content creators. But for several writing programs housed in nursing and medical schools, the reason for health care professionals to write is not actually about publishing. The programs are interested in the benefits of the act of writing itself.

"Writing" by Jonathan Reyes in Flickr Creative Commons

The Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers Workshop was created in 2003 to provide a creative outlet for residents in internal medicine. It offers doctors-in-training two full days out of their hectic schedules to just focus on writing. The program's director, Dr. Anna B. Reisman, teaches basic skills – from forming sentences with interesting verbs to crafting coherent stories – but she also pursues other, unstated goals.

"Writing makes people better doctors because it increases their ability to be good observers," Reisman said. "They start to pay attention to details. If they're writing about a patient, we encourage them to notice not only what the patient looks like, but ask, what are the sounds around the patient? What are the smells in the patient's room?"

These skills help doctors notice more things about their patients, which helps boost empathy and diagnostic ability.

"Learning the craft of writing requires that you learn how to reflect the perspective of others," Reisman said. "That's obviously a huge part of being a doctor."

Nellie Hermann, chief writing faculty in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University Medical School, said giving students and faculty the tools of reading, writing and understanding stories is an important part of their program.

"In any field where a person is asked to interact with lots of other people, learning how to understand stories is inevitably a crucial part of the work," Hermann wrote in an email.

James Stubenrauch, Senior Fellow at the Center for Health, Media and Policy at Hunter College in the City University of New York (CUNY), co-taught the first narrative writing course to students in the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. Developing a daily writing practice, he said, helps nurses combat the burnout, exhaustion, fatigue and stress that comes with dealing with death and suffering. It also empowers them to speak up and take greater roles in decision-making.

"It's part of a self-care strategy as well as making a better provider out of whoever does this kind of work," he told Career GPS. "What I'm trying to do in this course is give people permission to get their own voices in the room and down on paper."

Stubenrauch's writing course for nurses will continue in the spring if funding comes through. He plans to add a blogging component to the curriculum.

But health care professionals should not necessarily jump straight to blogging or publishing, though many Yale residents have published their work. Instead, Reisman advises her students to begin writing by keeping a journal. It's a low-pressure way to not just record events but to revisit observations and emotions later on.

"For me personally, writing has been a way to understand myself and to think through experiences," Reisman explained. "If I'm writing an essay about an experience, trying to get it right forces me to really look at it deeply in a way that I might not do if I'm just running through it in my head. And when we're teaching residents, they start to understand that also."

Read more about health care professionals who write and writing skills:

Don't be afraid of HIPAA, say nurse bloggers

Should Doctors be the New Curators of Medical Information?

Back to Basics: Lifelong Writing

Photo credit: "Writing" by Jonathan Reyes in Flickr Creative Commons

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