View from the Ground, by Dr Roger Henderson
Having worked on the front line of the NHS for the best part of 40 years, it’s an understatement to say that there have been a few changes during that period. One change that I have witnessed is an almost complete U-turn in GPs wanting to join a partnership or work full time, and another has been the consistent increase in the number of GPs with portfolio careers. Both of these changes are understandably linked to a desire to have a healthier work–life balance, which is key to preventing burnout in primary care. For me, writing about health has been my hinterland for a quarter of a century or so, and probably explains why I’m still able to work as a GP in my 60s with my sanity relatively intact.
In the early 90s, I used to enjoy writing small columns for long-defunct magazines, such as Medical monitor. It was novel, gave me some pin money, and made me think about medical issues that I wouldn’t otherwise have paid much attention to.
That all changed in the mid-90s when I became the medical columnist for the Sunday Times, which came about owing to one of the prerequisites for being a health writer—luck. I was casting around for a regular health column, and on a whim decided to ring the section editor of the paper, expecting the usual ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ reply. The first bit of luck was that the section editor answered the phone; the second was that, 2 minutes beforehand, they’d just received the news that their health writer had resigned, so a position was suddenly vacant. I was asked to send in some copy, which the section editor liked. A column was born, which took various forms over many years.
Off the back of this, writing doors started to open. I’ve written for many newspapers and magazines over the years, and subsequently branched out into broadcasting, conferences, webinars, and podcasts.
So, why write? I’m addicted to reading and have always enjoyed putting words on a page, especially with the added pressure of a deadline to focus my mind. Over the years, I’ve learnt some lessons that are probably worth considering if you’re thinking about trying your hand at health writing:
- start small and work up—get a body of work on your CV so that you’ve got something behind you if you want to approach a national publication
- don’t do it for the money—it’s possible to earn relatively well from health writing, but it requires a certain proficiency; you would definitely earn more doing private medical examinations or other medical work if money is your motivation
- recognise that books are time rich and cash poor—unless you’re keen on writing a health book or a novel, I’ve found it best to stick to columns and stand-alone pieces (although seeing your books in print is undeniably exciting)
- proofread everything before publication—I learnt this the hard way when, without telling me, an enthusiastic but ill-informed subeditor changed a piece I’d written on tuberculosis (TB) to read ‘TB virus’; as embarrassing as this was, it gave my GP partners something to laugh about for weeks
- keep an eye on the news—if a big health story is breaking, don’t be afraid to contact editors offering a quick-turnaround piece on it; there are acres of print and digital pages to fill each day, and they may be grateful for the offer
- embrace the opportunity to learn—writing helps you to keep up to speed with new guidelines, developments, and treatments, and you can use it as part of your appraisal discussion; in addition, I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve helped a patient simply because what I’d recently written about was fresh in my mind
- know your audience—remember that the public loves reading about (and watching videos on) health-related topics; keeping in touch with what your audience is interested in can really help you to stay up to date with best-practice guidelines
- never (and I mean never) miss a deadline—this is the kiss of death, and editors will usually never forgive you!
If you’re interested in adding writing as a string to your portfolio bow, my advice would be to pick up the latest edition of the Writers’ & artists’ yearbook,1 write some copy, and go for it! Write as you’d talk to a patient, keep it simple and, if you find it half as enjoyable as I do, you will not only keep doing it, but also enjoy practising medicine more as a result.