The Shakespearean doctor—how literature can make you a better medic

Reading fiction is a waste of time... or is it? Find out why doctors should indulge themselves in literature and not feel bad about it.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
16th Aug 2018 • 5m read

Lara knew this would be a waste of time.

The muffled voices echoing in from the doctor’s waiting room momentarily distracted her from the mess she now found herself in.

Do I tell her? Does she even need to know? People could get hurt!

Deep down Lara knew that withholding this information was a bad idea. She knew she’d regret it one day. Her fingers fumbled through the bag on her lap, searching for her way out. The key to solving this mess was in there somewhere. She just had to find it.

Dr Granger stared at her, waiting. Her eyes seemed concerned and yet amused somehow, as though the spectacle of watching Lara clumsily layer one lie over another gave her the entertainment she needed to get through her day.

This wasn’t the first time Lara had lied to her about this. She’d been trying to cover it up since the day she first walked into her office. But Granger knew. She always knew. She just needed Lara to admit to it herself.

Recognizing the intensity of her gaze, Dr Granger dropped her eyes again to the screen. Her notes stared back at her, challenging her to finally solve the riddle once and for all. They were all counting on her. She needed to solve this. For them.

And so she continued searching, as she always did, for the missing piece of the puzzle that would finally make Lara cave.


What was the woman hiding? Why did the doctor care? And does it even matter?

Truth is, it doesn’t. The story itself has no beginning, no middle, and no end. It has no context. It does not reflect a true situation nor does it reflect any situation you’re likely to ever find yourself in.

Yet, by describing a regular occurrence for all of us (a patient who is withholding information), I was able to turn a completely mundane (and infuriating) experience into a potentially riveting story. The interesting plot twists, themes, and lessons that I could drop into this story are endless.

That’s the power of literature. It takes the everyday and imbues it with significance. It breathes life into the ordinary and teaches us about the nature of humanity through the vessel of narrative.

As doctors, we’ve become used to the artificial separation between science and the humanities. There is, of course, a rational assumption driving this separation. As scientific scholars, we ground our perspectives in objectivity. We look to science to give us the explanations we need and see no need to embellish that truth any further. Meanwhile, the humanities represent a perspective of the world that celebrates those embellishments—embellishments that give life meaning. Without that nuance, our lives would lose the depth that makes them worth living.

This division between the rational and the emotional is unnecessary and unhelpful. These two modes of thought are often described as being dichotomous when they’re actually complementary—different vocabularies that describe the same reality using different terms.

Doctors of the past understood this. In fact, many of history’s greatest doctors were also writers—Hippocrates, Osler, Maimonides, Locke, Avicenna, Pilzno, Shem, Gawande—and these names just scratch the surface. These doctors understood one very important fact—literature makes you a better doctor.

Here are a few reasons why

  • It can tell us about things we cannot do ourselves: William Osler urged his students to seek balance by reading widely outside of the medical literature. Literature gives you a peek into worlds, perspectives, and situations that you couldn’t hope to access over the course of your life. It’s really the ultimate life hack—to learn from the experiences of thousands of people over a lifetime by reading a few pages every day. Don’t discount fiction either. Some of the most profound literary works use fictional events to explore complex ideas in a way that non-fiction could never do.
  • It helps you connect with your patients: In the late 19th century, William Osler wrote—It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has. We don’t treat diseases, we treat people. Effectively treating patients requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses their thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and habits. Reading widely provides insights into human motivation that is difficult to glean from the superficial interactions we have with our patients at the bedside.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others: Save yourself some pain and learn from the mistakes of others. Looking specifically at doctors who’ve taken to writing about their experiences, there’s a lot we can learn from them—from decisions that haven't gone well, mistakes they've made or troubles they've had, right through to learning from the emotional dramas they’ve endured. We can learn from their experiences without having to go through those experiences ourselves. John Harper, the Chair of Cardiology at Presbyterian Dallas Hospital and the founder of a conference combining literature and medicine, discusses this further in a Medmastery podcast. Reading literature is safe, a safe way to learn from other doctors, relatively reminds us that we have a real privilege to be taking care of patients.—John Harper
  • It can provoke and challenge us: Complacency is dangerous. When you reach a certain level of accomplishment, it’s easy to take a backseat in your own life and assume you’ve reached the peak of your achievement potential. But nobody wants a doctor who thinks they know everything. It traps you in a bubble of your own making and guarantees that you’ll make a mistake somewhere along the line, simply because you don’t know what you don’t know. Nothing challenges our assumptions and forces us to reconsider what we’ve always believed better than a well-written book by a bright and thoughtful mind.
  • Promotes self-expression: Writers are readers. Period. Reading thoughts expressed by others provides the ultimate shortcut to learning how to express your own. Even if you don’t plan on becoming the next Hemingway, you can learn a lot about communication and expressing yourself more clearly by paying attention to the way writers translate their thoughts into words.

I’m the first to admit it—finding the time to read in an already over-scheduled day is a challenge. But reading doesn’t need to be as time-consuming as you think. And if you’re struggling to find a good book to read, you can start by reviewing our top nine books for doctors.

Do you have a book that you think we should include in our next batch of Top Books for Doctors? Please link us to it in the comments below!