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10 ways Creative Writing has Enhanced my Skills as a Surgeon

Writing was a hobby. I never expected it would make me a better surgeon.

By Samantha Pillay

10 ways Creative Writing has Enhanced my Skills as a Surgeon

Celebrating the Art of Surgery was the theme for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons annual scientific congress in May 2021. The meeting highlighted the importance of creativity for surgeons.

Having recently taken up writing as a relaxing hobby, I have enjoyed developing new skills, yet I was surprised how my work benefitted.

1. Writing Sharpened my Brain

I have been an avid player of brain training games like Sudoku and memory games. Since childhood, my favourite past-time has been studying and learning. The acquisition of knowledge was fast throughout school, university, and subsequent surgical training and specialisation – a further ten years of training after graduating in Medicine.

Even after sub-specialising in Female Urology, my accelerated learning continued as I entered the world of private practice and business. Medicine requires ongoing education in both clinical and non-clinical areas. Once I achieved a high level of knowledge, my learning slowed at a time in my life where brain training was more important than ever. I think of the brain as a muscle requiring training and challenges to stay at its peak. Slowing down can reduce performance. Just like an Olympic athlete might continue to train to stay at the top of their game. Fortunately, I believe our brains can continue to develop for a longer time with age if trained than our bodies, much less likely to wear out or slow down, continuing to operate at a level of high performance for decades.

Writing was an entirely new skill set. I loved being thrown in at the deep end again. After being an expert in my field for twenty years, I was learning at an accelerated rate again. Ongoing surgical education evolves around conferences, courses, workshops and journal reading. Education had changed since I had sat my final surgical exams. The internet had exploded with access to online learning to assist me with self-publishing my first book and a recent surge of online resources precipitated by the pandemic.

My brain seemed to be firing at full speed again, like when I had studied for exams twenty to thirty years ago with a noticeable effect on my processing power in a clinical setting, even when performing surgery.

2. Greater Focus and Productivity

The follow-on effect from enhanced mental acuity was a greater focus at work—the ability to tackle problems and find solutions. Consulting and operating were more manageable, as was administration and business operations. Writing itself requires incredible focus. There is a never-ending list of other things to do. The hardest part is getting started and being able to switch off from the constant noise and emails. When writing, I become immersed in creative focus, like an artist painting. Being disciplined to set aside uninterrupted time and stay focused on a task is required in business to tackle complex tasks. This focus has become even harder to achieve in the modern world of technology, social media and constant interruption, leaving those complex problems harder to address in a business. Writing has honed my skills at being focused when required. Something that was always easy to achieve in the operating theatre but less so outside. The skill of being able to focus and stay on task is an advantage in today’s world. Focus, like all skills, improves with practice. Enhanced focus and improved processing power have resulted in greater productivity and efficiency. Tasks are completed faster, leaving more time to take on new projects. I have greater resources to draw on.

3. Improved Problem-solving

The creative aspect developed from writing added another dimension to problem-solving. Problem-solving is a critical component of both being a surgeon and running a business. Using creativity in the completely unrelated world of writing provides a perspective and parallels to draw upon when problem-solving, and ‘thinking outside the square’. Writing developed fresh perspectives, leading to innovative solutions. Staying in your lane doesn’t foster imagination and unconventional thinking. Creativity is predicted to be as important as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the future job market.

4. Enhanced Business Skills, Connections and Opportunities

The world of writing opened new experiences, contacts and skills. I never expected the cross over these would have with my role as a surgeon and business owner. Through exposure from my writing activities, I have received invitations to speak about urinary incontinence, raising public awareness about a sensitive health issue often overlooked. I have widened my circle of connections, mentors and business owners in other industries with analogous problems and knowledge to share.

5. More Time

The efficiencies created from writing have resulted in more time spent on my surgical career and running a medical practice. Some people have wondered how I found time as a busy surgeon and business owner to write a book. Everyone has the same amount of time; they choose to use that time differently. Looking back, I managed my surgical career with other roles, including having a child. Writing has required less time than looking after young children. The methods described in The No Recipe Cookbook created hours in my week by reducing time spent meal planning, shopping, cooking or eating out.

6. Technology Skills

I have used technology through surgery and business extensively. Being exposed to an entirely new area of technology and software has accelerated my ability to adapt to any new technology and software programs introduced through the business, allowing the business to adapt in a rapidly changing environment. Being of an age where I am not considered a ‘digital native’, my accelerated technology skills have surpassed many younger generations by staying ahead in our evolving workplace.

7. Written Communication

A surgical career relies on written communication, including medical correspondence, patient information and articles for publication. Business relies on written communication through numerous emails and documentation. Having now embarked on a writing hobby, I look back and wonder why more attention is not given to developing writing skills in surgical training. Traditionally, medical writing by health professionals has stayed within the medical community through scientific publications, a format the general public would find tedious and difficult to interpret. Health reporters and writers have provided content to the community, translated to an appropriate format yet often limited to headline stories. The internet and various online publications such as medium.com and social media now allow health professionals to provide community health education and awareness directly to a much greater audience. I have used my creative writing outlet to promote community health awareness about incontinence, alcohol and the health, well-being and financial benefits of teaching children to cook. Only about 12% of surgeons in Australia are female. By increasing the profile of female surgeons in the community, I hope to address attitudes and preconceptions about women in surgery, helping to attract more women to pursue a career in surgery.

8. Verbal Communication and Presentation Skills

Surgeons are teachers and trainers of students, other health professionals and fellow surgeons. In addition, public education and community awareness of health issues require presentation skills usually acquired by surgeons through presenting at meetings. Occasionally, the media interviews surgeons on important health issues, yet surgeons have little media and live broadcasting training. Writing has created numerous opportunities to develop my communication skills across several platforms. I have been interviewed on television and radio and appeared on live cooking shows, podcasts, webcasts and even IGTV, developing communication skills in a digital world and technical knowledge. I believe the shift to medical education online is here to stay, allowing medical education to reach larger audiences. Online communication skills will become more critical for the future generation of surgeons.

9. Physical Health

Writing ‘The No Recipe Cookbook’ directly improved my diet and healthy eating through home-cooking. My efficiency and productivity created more free time to exercise. My raised energy levels allowed me to keep learning while exercising, whether listening to a virtual conference or podcast. Writing has provided relaxation and downtime and replacing alcohol and late nights with stay-at-home, alcohol-free weekends writing. Improved fitness and physical health have improved my performance at work.

10. Mental Health

Boredom, burnout and mental illness are not uncommon amongst surgeons as they progress through their career. Studies have found burnout rates among surgeons over 50%. Finding an interest to activate my brain, providing a creative outlet, and a mental break from 24/7 work has created resilience and improved enjoyment in my surgical career. Writing has made my life more interesting, keeping me engaged in the present time and place. Something I had been trying to achieve for years through meditation.

Few specialised careers develop expertise in creative thinking, mental acuity, judgement and communication. Hybrid skills and hybrid jobs will require learning across industries.

Although I have highlighted the benefits for a surgeon from writing, there are likely many parallels for other professions. Taking the time to invest in expanding your skillset in a new field or industry may open you up to a world you never knew existed, benefiting your work in ways you never imagined.