When I left medicine 13 years ago to join a healthcare communications agency, 99% of those near and dear to me thought I was mad (including myself). How could I possibly give up seven years of tertiary study and four years of practice to become a medical writer? I hadn’t even started to earn the big bucks yet. What on earth was I thinking?
I was 28 years old, newly married (ironically enough to a physiotherapist who was now a 4th year medical student) and desperately unhappy with day-to-day medicine. I hated the monotony and unrelentless pace of ‘ward life’ – the fact that there wasn’t any room left over to be anyone else, to do anything else, to think about anything else – to just stop and breathe. Spending my days giving people back a semblance of their life had effectively sucked the life force right out of me. I spent most of my days starving and parched with a full bladder, blistered feet and dry hands, as I took care of everyone else but me. I operated on auto-pilot, controlled by a never-ending ‘to-do’ list, jumping from one bedside to the next, one ward to the next, up and down endless flights of stairs, day and night, day after day. I could no longer smell the roses, figuratively or literally. All I could smell was chlorhex. I took to showering twice a day but still the smell persisted. When I did sleep, I suffered from phantom pager syndrome; even if I wasn’t on-call, I would still wake up periodically convinced my thigh was vibrating where my pager usually sat.
Despite my unhappiness, I wasn’t bad at my job. In fact, it was the opposite. I always got excellent reviews. Perhaps this is what made my decision to leave so shocking to others. My seniors were upset because I was squirreling away such promise. My peers were upset because my leaving accentuated their own doubts: ‘If she can’t make it, who can?’ My parents were upset because they could no longer tell everyone their daughter was a successful doctor – in fact, they didn’t know how to describe what I’d become (‘we think she’s in medical publishing now’) and more than a decade later, they’d still be hard-pressed to explain to anyone what it is I do.
So, what is it I do now? Well, strangely enough, I’ve come full circle. I still take a history and do an examination to identify the signs and symptoms, I do some tests, I make a differential diagnosis and put together a treatment plan – except I’m no longer treating people, I’m treating healthcare brands. These are the products and services that make healthcare tick: paradigm-changing pharmaceuticals, innovative medical devices, efficiency-driving healthcare apps, hard-working doctors, under-resourced but high-performing hospitals, under-funded but brilliant medical research institutes, policy-setting peak bodies, awareness-building public health campaigns.
Put simply, I take care of these brands. Depending on what state they are in when they arrive, I either help to birth them, mend them or bring them back to life. When they get sick, I make them better. When they languish, I revive them. When they are well, I practise preventative health. As they mature and get older, I show them how to stay robust.
In this world, my pen is my scalpel. I cut through any brand confusion, peeling back the layers of a brand until I uncover its distinctive DNA – what it is that makes that brand truly unique. I create a platform for all future brand expression, much like a skeleton provides the framework for all our body’s movement. I seek to remedy anything that’s not quite right – an unclear value proposition, a weak positioning, a poor brand narrative. Then I encourage scrupulous brand hygiene and discipline around embedding good brand habits, like ensuring brand consistency, measuring yourself every so often and having regular check-ups.
In this world, I am a brand and communications strategist. But as it turns out, that’s not very different from being a doctor.