Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Danielle Ofri, Writer and Health Contributor to the New York Times

Osmosis Team
Published on Sep 29, 2014. Updated on Invalid date.

Photo Credit: Joon Park

Dr. Danielle Ofri is an attending Physician at Bellevue Hospital and an Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine. She is also a contributor to the New York Times for its health section. She has published many books, her latest one being What Doctors Feel-How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine. She has recently been featured in a TEDMED talk. She can be followed on Twitter (@Danielleofri). We are excited to feature her today as part of our Leaders in Medical Education Series.

What inspired you to pursue a career as both a physician and a writer? 
I hadn't planned to become a physician and a writer. I did a combine MD-PhD program, so expected to be a bench scientist. But I did my internship at Bellevue Hospital and fell in love with clinical medicine. I did my medical training during the late 80s and early 90s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was an exhausting way, in a manner that is difficult to describe. We were so saturated with death, that I ended up taking a year and half off after residency. It was during that time that I began to write down the stories of my experiences in medical training. I wasn't planning to write a book, or to be a writer, but the stories needed to come down on paper.

This was the first time I was able to think through this powerful experiences. In real life come everything happened so quickly, with not a moment to reflect. But writing was so much slower. I found myself especially drawn to the process of revision. In real life, there's no chance to revise, but in writing you can go back to the story endlessly. Not that you can revise or change the actual events, but you can switch the point of view, rethink how the stories are entered and exited, slow down or speed up time, widen or narrow the angle of the lens. This is my chance to sift through the events and sort them out so that they can finally “settle” somewhere in me.

I noticed that a lot of your work revolves around the doctor-patient relationship. What do you believe is the biggest challenge for doctors to build this relationship?
To me, the biggest challenge is time. I always say that if I have an hour for each patient, I'd be an amazing doctor! But because we are so pressured for time, with so much mindless documentation, opportunities for connecting with the patient are compromised. It may not seem obvious, but taking the time to connect with a patient is the single most efficient thing a doctor can do. Once you have that baseline trusting connection, everything will be easier and actually faster. You will probably need fewer tests and probably get fewer between-visit calls. (And it makes the whole endeavor far more pleasant!)

Keeping your focus on the doctor-patient relationship in mind, what changes would you make to medical education to improve the quality of patient care?
I think it is helpful for students and residents to have a handful of consistent mentors throughout their training. Being able to discuss cases together, being able to watch an experienced clinician, being able to dig deeper into the finer clinical points and challenging doctor-patient issues is extremely valuable. These are things that are impossible to teach in textbooks or in Powerpoint presentations. You can only learn them by walking the walk with a mentor who is willing to do the same.

In your spare time, you write for the New York Times health section. What is the most difficult aspect of conveying medicine and health to the public?
The most difficult part is getting across complex medical information that is necessary for an issue to be understood. When talking to doctors, you can use quick shorthand and then get right to the heart of the matter. With the general public who lacks the technical background, you have to explain so many things before the story makes any sense. The trick is trying to weave the information into the story without seeming too didactic.

The other difficult thing is steeling yourself for the inevitable barrage of critical comments and emails. No matter what you write, there’s always a cohort of readers hunting for a “gotcha” moment. Luckily, there are usually far more readers who respond with thoughtful and interesting letters.