Ann Hui Ching

Some of Yale’s medical residents stepped away from their rotations earlier this month, trading in stethoscopes for pens and papers. 

The Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Initially established by physician-writer Abraham Verghese as a one-off event, the workshop has gained prominence within the School of Medicine for training new doctors across specialties to hone the craft of writing.

“We teach medicine as stories,” said Lisa Sanders, the co-director of the workshop and a professor at the School of Medicine. “It’s not like medicine is just science. It’s always about that intersection between human beings, sickness or death, and science. And if you just focus on the science, you’re missing a lot.”

The Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop is open to all medical residents at Yale’s internal medicine department and other fields, including psychiatry, surgery and emergency medicine. A few months before the workshop, residents submit a 1200 maximum creative or personal essay as part of their application, said Anna Reisman, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the co-director of the program.

Selected participants bring those pieces to a two-day workshop where they refine and revise each others’ pieces. The residents also learn writing techniques under the guidance of the program directors, who themselves are physician-writers and creatives. Reisman is also co-director of the program for humanities in medicine, and Sanders created and authors the New York Times Magazine’s “Diagnosis” column — the inspiration for the television show House M.D.

At the end of the program, the writers read aloud their final pieces to students and faculty. Their essays are published in an online zine titled “Capsules.”

“The objective really is for us to teach the craft of writing,” said Reisman. “We teach residents who take part to learn some of the elements of writing, learn how to tell a story and learn how to write a personal essay. We talk about good verbs, writing with precision, all the basic craft lessons, and we spend time doing some writing exercises.”

This experience has proved integral for residents like Effie Johnson, a workshop participant and editor for “Capsules,” who felt tentative about her writing abilities as a medical student.

“I had a lot of impostor syndrome,” said Johnson. “The opportunity to just talk about writing, get feedback on my writing, and have the opportunity to grow is something that really attracted me. Writing is part of the way that we can solidify what is important to us, using it as motivation, especially those emotional experiences.”

Justin Dower, another resident who participated in the program, said he was also excited at the prospect of working with the workshop leaders and the other participants. Learning about the diversity of experiences that each of the new doctors wrote about, he added, was informative.

As a healthcare provider, Dower said he also believes that studying the medical humanities has improved his ability to connect with his patients.

“The humanities gives us a way to get better … by studying the experiences of writers in the past, writers in the present, learning from patients, and also other practitioners,” Dower said. “By reading what they have written, we can really get a better understanding of how to meet the people that we’re trying to serve and how to connect with them.”

The News interviewed several additional participants in the workshops, many of whom spoke about how the workshops helped them reflect on their experiences as physicians and healthcare providers. 

Morgan Goheen, an infectious diseases fellow in the School of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases who participated in the workshop, said she plans to spend most of her time as a physician-scientist in the lab. As an academic researcher, she said she hopes that improving her writing will allow her to communicate her research more effectively.

Writing has also been a tool to better connect and communicate with her patients, Goheen added. 

“It’s a way to express and appreciate what lies before me, whether it’s an individual patient or discussion of a global disease burden like malaria,” said Goheen. “Having the skills to notice and appreciate things that are affecting my day-to-day work has been an important part of letting me process and be better at working with people that are really different from me.”

Not every writer’s piece in the workshop centered around medicine. Caroline Raymond-King, for instance, wrote about her partner, their chickens and their dog.

“It’s hard in residency, but when you have a story to tell, it’s nice to have the skills to be able to write it,” Raymond-King said. “Writing really gives me the space and time to think about what I really care about.”

That space to reflect has been critical for some of the participants to reflect on challenging experiences they’ve encountered during their medical training, several told the News. In her piece for the workshop, Lara Rotter wrote about her experience treating a victim of domestic violence while still in medical school. 

Rotter said she believes that many people in the medical field harbor stigma around experiencing hardship during clinical practice. Doctors, she said, are often expected to remain emotionally unperturbed, even when encountering traumatic cases like domestic violence and abuse. 

“In medicine, we often fall into the trap of connecting professionalism with being unemotional and not encountering any difficult situations,” she said. “Often when difficult situations are encountered, we think this means we are too vulnerable or not perfect enough.” 

But through her writing, Rotter said she hopes to open up about doctors’ emotional and mental well-being as they navigate challenging patient experiences.

“We just really want to share stories to normalize things that are happening, that we all experience these things, and that we all have these difficult encounters with patients,” said Rotter.

For Matthew Morrison, an emergency medicine physician in New York City and a lecturer of medical humanities at Yale College, the quality of a physician’s writing might not even matter. Rather, he said he believes that having a creative outlet is a necessity for doctors.

“Doctors, who are occasionally ourselves human, need artistic and creative outlets for what we experience,” Morrison wrote in an email to the News. “The vast majority of us will write abominable poetry, and that is perfectly fine. But we need to remember that we are entitled to our experiences. Only a human — and not an algorithm, not a computer, not an LLM — can see the gestalt.”

The Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop was established in 2003.