Doctors: Too busy for a book club? Join a virtual one

If you cannot get the doctor to the book club, then bring the book club to the doctor. With more than 1,000 followers, the DoctorsBookClub is the 21st century way to connect with fellow book lovers using Twitter.

The concept of the DoctorsBookClub (DBC) is simple: a different book is discussed every 2 months, giving participants time to read the books. The schedule for 2017 is available online, and the book club discussion takes place on Twitter over the last weekend of every second month.

Members of the DBC come from all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, India, Ecuador, Peru, and the Philippines.

Much like any other book club, participants share their views and experiences, as well as suggest additional reading materials.

How do doctors make time to read in their busy schedules? How easy is it to set up a truly international collaboration and moderate a global, virtual book club?

Medical News Today spoke with DBC founders Dr. Steven M. Christiansen, an ophthalmology resident at the University of Iowa, and Dr. Daya Sharma, a cataract, refractive, and corneal surgeon in Sydney, Australia, to find out.

The virtual book club

Dr. Christiansen was inspired by his wife's participation in a local book club. "The book club motivated her to read, but also provided her a sense of belonging and friendship," he explained to MNT.

Enter his fellow book lover, Dr. Sharma, and the DBC was born.

The inaugural DBC discussion took place in June 2016. Dr. Paul Kalanithi's account of his battle with terminal cancer - the #1 New York Times Bestseller and 2017 Wellcome Book Prize nominee When Breath Becomes Air - invoked a thoughtful, and at times emotional, discussion about mortality and end-of-life care.

Dr. Sharma told MNT that "it was an honour to have Dr. Lucy Kalanithi have some input into our first book discussion."

"She offered insight, perspective, and raw emotion into the life of her husband and family," Dr. Christiansen added.

Since the launch, the books have covered diverse topics, ranging from the rigors of residency training in The House of Gods by Samuel Shem, to Alzheimer's in Still Alice by Lisa Genova, and terminal illness in The Spare Room by Helen Garner.

The book club has been a real success, and participation has exceeded the founders' expectations.

Hobbies outside of work

Finding time for a book club or other hobbies is hard for anyone with a busy life. Doctors, however, are increasingly faced with demands that allow them virtually no time for activities outside of their work.

How do the DBC founders and members manage to squeeze hobbies into their lives?

Sara Taylor, M.D., a family physician in Alberta, Canada, joined the DBC as guest moderator in January for the discussion of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's.

"I came upon @DoctorsBookClub on Twitter and was instantly drawn to it," she explained. "I have belonged to face-to-face book clubs in the past and found it hard to always make the meetings."

"I make reading a priority as it helps with my writing - I have been blogging for 4 years. I read at home during the evening or on vacation usually," Dr. Taylor added.

She explained that while it was challenging to have a hobby in addition to her busy clinical schedule, it was also essential to have a creative outlet to reduce stress and to maintain perspective and balance.

For Dr. Christiansen, finding time at all during his residency training has been a real challenge.

"I can't tell you the last TV series I watched, the last time I exercised consistently, or even the last time I hung out with real 'friends,'" he told us. "Physicians are pulled in many, many directions - and it's no wonder burnout and suicide rates are so prevalent among physicians," he added.

"We need hobbies, we need friends, but there is just no time. I hope that this book club can help motivate other physicians to rekindle their love for reading, encourage collaboration among physicians/patients/public in all countries and among all specialties, and help foster a sense of community and belonging."

Dr. Steven M. Christiansen

So how do the DBC doctors make time to read?

The pictures and posts shared during the DBC discussions show how members are actively making time to read the books: they read on the beach, on Sunday afternoons, or while taking the kids to hockey practice.

Audiobooks are also a popular way to incorporate the books into other activities, such as the daily commute.

"Audiobooks are great, but it is difficult to make time. I don't think that it's realistic for people in the club to read every book or participate in every book discussion," Dr. Sharma explained.

DBC in 2017

Is a book club with fellow doctors the key to re-kindling a love for reading?

The DBC team soon realized that covering a book each month was too much and have since decreased the frequency to one book every other month.

Why are weekends a good time for a book club? And how well is Twitter working as a medium?

Dr. Christiansen told MNT that he has previously been involved in Twitter chats, but the challenges of international time zones limited the ability of the audience to take part.

"[Twitter] allows for participation from anyone, anywhere, anytime," Dr. Christiansen explained.

Dr. Sharma added that the character limit of Twitter means that replies are succinct and on topic, while also making it easy for busy doctors in different time zones to catch up with the discussion.

The books chosen for 2017 cover a range of different specialties.

"[I] tried to compile a list that would both be interesting for physicians from a medicine/science standpoint, but that may also challenge us to read about areas in which we may be less familiar, helping to create an engaging discussion," Dr. Christiansen explained.

This month's discussion will take place during the weekend of May 26-28. The book is The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands by Eric Topol, which explores the future of health technology, particularly smart phones, in medicine.

"I think the book could be quite controversial in terms of how doctors perceive the future of medicine. I think it should make for an interesting discussion," Dr. Sharma told MNT.

Dr. Christiansen also hopes that Dr. Topol will take part in their discussion.

An inclusive book club

As an ophthalmic surgeon based in a clinic, Dr. Sharma told MNT that he does not have much contact with doctors working on hospital wards.

He said, "I regard engagement by doctors in different countries and with different specialities and experience as very important. For me, it is an exercise in learning from others how to improve my thinking about medicine and how to improve my practice. Therefore, it is very useful to have a diverse range of input."

So far, members from diverse specialties, including pathology, ophthalmology, general practice, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and geriatrics, have taken part.

Dr. Sharma told MNT that opening the DBC to non-medical members would allow them to see how doctors communicate with each other and how much they care about improving their practice.

Dr. Christiansen added that "a patient today may be a med student tomorrow and a physician in a few years - and at every step along the way, [they remain] a patient. We physicians have so much we can learn from our patients."

International collaboration

Since their initial conversation about setting up the DBC, Dr. Sharma and Dr. Christiansen have not actually met in person or spoken to each other on the phone. They mainly use email and Twitter direct messaging to communicate.

Yet the DBC team's dedication to working across time zones has clearly paid off.

Guest moderator Lesley Barron, M.D., a general surgeon from Ontario, Canada, led the March discussion about Atul Gawande's Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science.

The discussion touched on topics surrounding surgical training, uncertainty in medicine, burnout, and the value of patient stories.

Have the books left a long-lasting impression?

"When Breath Becomes Air had the greatest impact on me, and I think it is a book that I will read again. I have talked quite a lot with patients and their families about issues raised in Still Alice and The Spare Room."

Dr. Daya Sharma

For doctors and many others, finding the time to have a hobby is challenging. By redefining how and when we can participate in our favorite activities outside of work, we might just be able to fit it all in.