Health and health care are hot topics lately, and not just for journalists and bloggers debating Obamacare. Suddenly – or so it seems; in fact the trend has been building for years – people from all walks of life want to read about medicine.
Within medicine, a majority of journals now have essay, viewpoint, or perspectives sections. Not only are such sections frequently the most widely read portions of the journal (i.e. JAMA’s A Piece of My Mind), but for some, including the New England Journal of Medicine, if you have the table of contents delivered to your inbox as I do, all you see are the essays; if you want the science, you need to scroll down. And that’s just the traditional medical press. Increasing numbers of health professionals write for and read blogs to learn about, reflect upon, and engage with others about issues in medicine from the results of a new study to coping with burnout and inspiring tales from the front lines of research and practice.
But the trend isn’t just among health professionals. The blogosphere is replete with sites focus on wellness, illness, aging, and the patient experience. Many of the writers for these sites are themselves patients or caregivers, but others write about these topics because they matter not just today with the ACA debates, but always, since birth, death, disease, and caring are the touchstones of most lives. This reality was recognized in the 2012 edition of Best American Essays in which eight, or fully one third, of the essays were about medicine. The topics ranged from menopause as a vehicle to the true self and how an aging doctor wants to die to a writing class for children at a cancer hospital and the benefits of gaining weight to treat depression. Only two were written by physicians. All combined great writing and storytelling with novel insights and important information or thoughts about life, illness, caregiving, and death. And, no, the editor of the 2012 edition was not a doctor.
So whether you’re a health profession who writes or wants to write or a writer working on a piece that deals in some way with medicine, health, or illness, there is clearly interest in this sort of work, and possibly even growing interest. Professional society annual meetings now feature workshops on narrative, advocacy writing, and social media, and many universities and medical schools now have courses in this sort of Public Medical Communication (PMC) writing, sponsor PMC-related annual conferences, and publish journals of essays, short stories, poetry, and art. Annual conferences around the nation invite anyone, professional or not, to come write about health and illness.
So what do all these essays and stories and blogs have in common? Each uses literary and journalistic techniques to explore topics related to health and health care in ways that are compelling, entertaining, and accessible to all. Mostly, it’s about communicating clearly, often using a story and characters to illustrate a point, and always about striving to understand and represent real lived experience.
Below is a partial list, in alphabetical order, of medical journals that publish this sort of work.
Medicine and the Arts (MATA): Two facing pages: left-hand page features an excerpt from literature, a poem, a photograph, etc. of no more than 700 words; right-hand page is a commentary of about 900 words that explores the relevance of the artwork to the teaching and/or practice of medicine.
Teaching and Learning Moments (TLM): Pieces vary in style and subject, but most are first-person, informal narratives from 250-600 words written from the perspective of instructor, student, or patient.
In a Few Words: A nonfiction narrative essay up to 1,600 words which gives voice to the personal experiences and stories that define kidney disease. Submissions from physicians, allied health professionals, patients, or family members are welcome.
Perspective: Unstructured essays up to 1500 words representing opinions, presenting hypotheses, or considering controversial issues.
On Being a Doctor: Short essays or fiction up to 1500 words on illuminating experiences in practice.
On Being a Patient: Short essays up to 1500 words by physicians on their own experiences of illness and accounts written by patients or their families.
Personal Views: Highly readable, opinion based essays of about 850 words that make a single strong, novel, and well-argued point and are also often topical, significant, insightful, and attention grabbing.
Fillers: A articles of up to 600 words on topics such as: A patient who changed my practice; A memorable patient; A paper that changed my practice; The person who has most influenced me; My most informative mistake; Any other story conveying instruction, pathos, or humor.
Humanities: Unsolicited poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction limited to 1000 words or 75 lines (poems) that convey personal and professional experiences with a sense of immediacy and realism.
Salon: 700 word op-ed style articles of novel, lively, thoughtful and sometimes quirky ideas designed to ignite sparks of insight and stimulate thought and online discussion using our e-letters function.
Narrative Essays: Stories from clinical practice or from the educational setting limited to 1000 words by teachers, learners, patients, or professionals practicing in the primary care disciplines that present a creative perspective both in their content and in their story-telling style. Narrative essays should illuminate the unique complexity and genuine personal dimensions of patient care and education in family medicine, primary care, or community medicine.
Narrative Matters: Narrative essays of 2,500 words based on firsthand encounters with the health care system that explore the personal, ethical, and moral issues of delivering or receiving health care today.
A Piece of My Mind: Personal vignettes of up to 1800 words (eg, exploring the dynamics of the patient-physician relationship) taken from wide-ranging experiences in medicine; occasional views and opinions.
Poetry and Medicine: Poems no longer than 50 lines related to the medical experience, whether from the point of view of a health care worker or patient, or simply an observer.
Old Lives Tales: Stories, experiences, or incidences of which have instructed, saddened or gladdened us and, above all, taught us something about the care of the older adult. 750 words.
Materia Medica: Well-crafted, highly readable and engaging personal narratives, essays or short stories of up to 1500 words and poetry of up to 100 lines.
Text and Context: Excerpts from literature (novels, short stories, poetry, plays or creative non-fiction) of 200-800 words followed by an accompanying essay of up to 1000 words discussing the significance of the work for clinical practice or medical education.
Perspective: Articles limited to 1000 to 1200 words cover a wide variety of topics of current interest in health care, medicine, and the intersection between medicine and society.
Reflections: Poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, up to 2000 words that illustrate facets of the profession of neurology, particularly if written from a new perspective, are preferred. The quality of the writing style will be as important as the content.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com