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My head nodded and then jolted in reflex. Blurry eyed, I glanced at my wife over my copy of the Lancet. Just like the stethoscopes that cling to the necks of junior doctors, the Lancet was my “take me seriously” badge as an aspiring new principal in general practice. “What are you reading?” I asked my wife. “Harry Potter,” she replied. I snorted contemptuously and went back to my dry old parchment.
On Saturday Harry Potter and the Ghostly Hallows, the final volume of the adventures of J K Rowling's boy wizard, thumped on to my doorstep. My subscription to the Lancet, however, has long lapsed.
Harry's parents are murdered and he is dumped on unloving in-laws. There is no social work meeting, no counselling, no antidepressants—Harry is just locked in a cupboard, with a few hand-me-downs and domestic chores. There is no complaining, no whining. When Harry discovers that he is a wizard, does he go around bragging and shooting his mouth off? No he does not.
He is then sent to a boarding school, which rather unusually has no recreational drugs, no underage sex, no skiing trips, and no Oxbridge term—just bullying, Quidditch, and “he who must not be named.” Harry might be a hard working, speccy-four-eyed-social-misfit-geek (fertile medical school material), but he is honest, loyal, determined, and brave. Even though he is a fictional character, his story tells us more about the psychology of life than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual can.
Narrative and fictional writing are more popular than ever. But scientific writing remains the preserve of the few. There is a vast array of specialist journals, but most lie unread in neat piles under the stairs in their plastic body bags awaiting a pauper's grave in a landfill site. These journals are scientifically pretentious, which is the “take me seriously” badge of medical publishing. There is also a perception that journals are controlled by a small group of detached, conservative, academic oligarchs, more interested in protecting their own turf than in the day to day reality of their jobbing colleagues. There are few landmark papers, the conclusions in many papers are mere fiction, and the “science” is just simple observation of the real magic—nature. Specialist medical journals can learn from fiction. They need to broaden their appeal by exploring the narrative of medicine—the humour, ethics, pain, and politics of the specialty. This is not a question of dumbing down, for the only stupid thing is not realising that medicine is more about heart than brains.