From the desk of the EMD: Writing a Medical Column

January 16, 2017


Dr. Blaiss

Why didn’t they teach me how to write a medical opinion column in college or medical school?

I have to write medical opinion columns as executive medical director. So why did I major in zoology in college? What a waste of time! I should have been an English major and taken a class in creative writing. What about medical school? Nothing I learned there prepared me to write a medical opinion piece. In fact, the only purpose of medical school is to teach you a vocabulary. Everything I learned in medical school is wrong now. Here is how I was taught to manage an acute asthma exacerbation: administer subcutaneous epinephrine every 15 minutes for three doses followed by a dose of epinephrine in oil (Susphrine). I was chastised by my professor for wanting to give corticosteroids to a hospitalized asthmatic because I would make the patient “steroid-dependent.”

At least as an allergy fellow, I was taught the basics of writing a research paper. But as Bob Lanier, MD, FACAAI, has continued to remind me, writing a medical opinion column is not like writing a submission for a medical journal. There is no abstract, no introduction, no methods, no results and no conclusion in a medical opinion column. I went to the internet and Googled what makes a good opinion column. Here are some tips from the Elon University Writing Syndicate, which seemed relevant to me:

  1. Have an opinion: The best columns are those that illustrate a point of view, make a call to action or put forward recommendations. The best columns also limit themselves to one subject.
  2. Consider the context: Leverage your expertise by writing about topics already in the news.
  3. Use conversational language: Consider your audience. Readers are NOT always familiar with your discipline, so avoid jargon. A rule of thumb is that each paragraph should be no more than two sentences. Write short sentences.
  4. Use the active voice and “show, don’t tell”: Good verbs trump adjectives any day. Illustrate your point with anecdotes or descriptions. However…
  5. Keep it short: Most columns are between 600 and 800 words. That also means you’ll need to get to the point very quickly.
  6. Acknowledge critics: The strongest columns are those that briefly mention opposing views while offering a rebuttal to those arguments. "Brief" is key since this should be about YOUR ideas or work, and spending time on critics can make you sound defensive.

So I have been trying to use these tips and come up with a witty, entertaining column that would rival the excellent ones from the pen of Dr. Lanier. Guess what – that is not going to happen. Not yet, anyway.

I do have a few quick thoughts on the future of allergy, which I put together for the College’s Annual Scientific Meeting in San Francisco. I do believe the future of allergy is promising. The trend of hospitals buying physician practices is not as strong as it once was. New practice models are helping allergists to stay independent. Allergists are in a good position to work with value-based payments as we practice in low cost operations. We are learning to work with patients with high-deductible health plans to maximize our economics.

Health care is moving away from “one-size-fits-all” treatment and toward precision medicine. This trend will require more learned specialists. With all the new biologics and innovative medical treatments in asthma, atopic dermatitis and food allergy, the demand for specialized allergy services will definitely increase over the next decade.

Of course, not everything is rosy. MACRAnomics, USP compounding, and EHR headaches are issues that keep allergists up at night. What will the new administration in D.C. bring to health care in 2017? I will have thoughts on these and other issues in future columns.

Lastly, you can follow me on Twitter @wheezemd. I’m not sure my tweets will be as entertaining or controversial as @realDonaldTrump, but you never know. By the way, this column is now between 600-800 words. I’m learning.

Michael Blaiss, MD, FACAAI, Executive Medical Director