In case you haven’t heard, Malcolm Gladwell recently released his book, David and Goliath. I’m just about finished reading it.
Just as interesting as the book are its reviews. In a recent post from Slate, Gladwell himself responds to the criticism. He freely admits that his books should not be held as pinnacles of academic rigor, but should be considered “intellectual adventures stories.”
He further elaborates on the power of stories, accepting their weaknesses in exchange for their powerful strengths:
Stories necessarily involve ambiguity and contradiction. They do not always capture the full range of human experience. Their conclusions can seem simplified or idiosyncratic. But at the same time stories have extraordinary advantages. They can reach large numbers of people and move them and serve as the vehicle for powerful insights. The overwhelming majority of social scientists that I have encountered in my career appreciate this trade-off and respect writers like me for the efforts we have made to use storytelling to bring the amazing worlds of psychology and sociology to a broader audience.
We need more Malcolm Gladwells in medicine. We need more storytellers.
The one that probably comes closest to Gladwell’s popularity and writing style is his New Yorker colleague, Atul Gawande. But he’s just one individual. Imagine if more physicians could use the power of story to explain why, say, patients don’t necessarily need antibiotics for their cold. Or why getting that PSA test in an 80-year-old man isn’t necessarily a good idea.
But look at how dry the CDC antibiotic guidelines, or the USPSTF prostate cancer recommendations are. Yawn, right? It’s no wonder why patient education sometimes falls on deaf ears.
Gladwell’s scientific theories may not always hold up to intense scrutiny, but as a communicator, it’s his message that resonates much more loudly with the public than those who criticize his work.
Doctors should learn from this. In order for their message to spread, they better learn how to tell a good story.
Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and co-author of Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices. He is on the editorial board of contributors, USA Today, and is founder and editor, KevinMD.com, also on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.