“Oh, I didn’t know you’re a writer,” my neighbor said as I handed her a complimentary copy of my recently published book.
“Not really,” I replied. “I’m just a physician who likes to write.”
The conversation ended, but later, I began to think: What’s the difference between a physician writer and a writer who is a physician? What should I say to somebody else who makes a comment like my neighbor? I should have a 30-second elevator speech prepared.
A physician writer and a writer who is a physician are not the same. They have different focuses and roles. Here is my elevator pitch.
A physician writer is a professional who primarily specializes in medicine, but also has the skills to write about medical topics. Their primary role is as a physician, diagnosing and treating patients, but they also write as an avocation or as part of their professional responsibilities. This could include writing research papers, case studies, articles for medical journals, or informational materials for patients. For example, Dr. Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon, writes extensively on public health issues and has published several books on medical topics, including Being Mortal and The Checklist Manifesto.
On the other hand, a writer who is a physician is someone whose primary role or profession is writing, but who also happens to be a trained physician. This person might write novels, screenplays, essays, or articles that may or may not be about medical topics. Their medical background could provide a unique perspective or depth to their writing, but their main focus is on the craft of writing itself. An example is the late Dr. Michael Crichton, who was trained as a physician at Harvard but is best known for his writing, including the science fiction novels The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park.
As my elevator descends, time permitting, I would expand on the list of physicians who are writers and writers who are physicians, as well as their works. My list would consist of at least ten authors in addition to Gawande and Crichton:
1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Best known for his detective series featuring Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was a physician before he became a successful author.
2. Anton Chekhov. A physician by training, Chekhov is one of the greatest writers of short stories in history. Some of his famous works include The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters.
3. Robin Cook. Trained in ophthalmology, Cook is known for his medical thrillers, including Command Outbreak.
4. Khaled Hosseini. Formerly a practicing internist, Hosseini wrote best-selling novels like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
5. Abraham Verghese. A Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, Verghese has written several best-selling books, including Cutting for Stone and My Own Country.
6. Tess Gerritsen. A retired physician, Gerritsen is a best-selling author known for her medical and crime thrillers, including the Rizzoli & Isles series.
7. Oliver Sacks. A neurologist, Sacks wrote several books about his patients and their unique neurological disorders, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which was made into a feature film.
8. Siddhartha Mukherjee. An oncologist, Mukherjee wrote The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
9. Paul Kalanithi. A neurosurgeon who wrote When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir about his life and battle with lung cancer. The book was published posthumously and became a best-seller.
10 Lewis Mehl-Madrona. Trained in family medicine, psychiatry, and clinical psychology, Mehl-Madrona is the author of the Coyote trilogy and has worked with Indigenous communities to explore how to bring their culture and healing traditions into health care.
I quickly jotted down these authors without trying to differentiate which category they belonged to, i.e., whether they were primarily physician writers or writers who are (or were) physicians. When I tried to separate them into one or either of the two categories, I had some difficulty because the distinction was nearly impossible to make – the lines between “physician writer” and “writer physician” became blurred.
Naturally, the first few authors that jumped out at me were mainly writers who happened to be trained as physicians. But what about, for example, Verghese and Gawande and a few of the others who have had dual careers practicing as physicians and making a living by writing?
I faced a similar dilemma when I tried to categorize physicians who are musicians. I wrote a piece about physicians and their hobbies, and in the case of jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin, his music is inseparable from his role as a psychiatrist: he is both a psychotherapist and recording jazz artist, as he describes on his websites – one for his role as a psychiatrist and one for his career as a musician.
The tipping point that decides which category they belong to, I suppose, is the amount of time spent practicing versus writing (or playing music). When the time is roughly equal, I don’t bother to make the distinction between roles. It’s similar for physician executives. When they divide their time equally between seeing patients and managing administrative activities, the “physician” and the “executive” are one and the same.
You may be asking: why does any of this matter? I would answer because I believe all physicians are writers, just as my colleague Peter Angood, MD, believes all physicians are leaders. No doubt, some physicians are more capable writers (and leaders) than others; closing the gap between practicing and writing is not only desirable, it is therapeutic for physicians and beneficial for their patients.
Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine.