When to Consult a Medical Expert

female doctor in ICUAlthough I’ve always helped authors along the way with medical questions, it’s been one of my primary focuses for the last three years since the invention of Redwood’s Medical Edge—my medical blog for authors.

The reason for creating my blog was the multitude of published works I read that were loaded with medical inaccuracies. Not just a few here and there. Time after time, errors caught my eye.

In a pod-cast interview, the interviewer asked if these medical mistakes would be enough for the average reader to pick up. To be honest, I’m probably more sensitive to these errors after spending 20 years in nursing but some are mind-numbingly obvious. Such as saying the spleen is on the right side. Such as calling a collar bone a shoulder blade. You don’t have to have a medical degree in anything to pick up on these missed anatomy issues.

Writers, I think, are confused as to when it’s beneficial to consider consulting a medical expert. And I actually mean more than asking Uncle Joe who has worked as a dentist when you need information about delivering an infant.

Not the best option.

An author who is also a medical expert is your best bet. They know what will overload the reader, they know what is too medically complex for a non-medical author to pull off, and can help you with the nuances (the language and the interactions) since they’ve worked in the field.

But when is it best to consider plucking down a few hard earned dollars to work with a medical consultant?

Here are my thoughts.

  1. You need a medical condition that fits a certain set of symptoms. I often get queries from authors along these lines and perhaps they’ve tried to find something on their own but just cannot decipher the medical language to know, for certain, if it fits: “I need a fatal condition for a child that won’t be immediately obvious but could put the child in peril around three months of age.” Believe it or not, a metabolic disorder fits this criteria.
  2. You have a medical scenario in mind but aren’t sure if it’s reasonable. This happens frequently and is probably the most dangerous position to work from. Let’s take a look at the following example: “My character has been in a car accident. The car has rolled three times. The injured character was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown 100 yards into a swift moving river, where he almost drowned. He was rescued and required only a minute of CPR to revive him. I need him home from the hospital that night.” Or the opposite is true. “I have a character that fell down the stairs and I need him to be in the ICU for three days.”

Both of these situations set up implausible medical scenarios. The car accident victim is going to be too injured to go home that day. Someone who requires CPR after nearly drowning is going to be watched, at a minimum, overnight. In order to get admitted into the ICU a patient has to be pretty sick so the simple fall down the stairs is likely not going to injure the character sufficiently.

  1. Come with an open mind but with a needed result for your character. What I prefer to know is your end game with an open mind to the medical scenario. “I need a character to suffer an injury from a fall that would land them in the hospital for a few days in the ICU and I’m fine with a few extra days in the hospital but I don’t want them to have any residual injuries.” For you, I would pick an epidural hematoma.
  2. You have a pivotal medical scene. I consulted once for an author who had a child in the Pediatric ICU, dying from leukemia. This is something you want to flow nicely for the reader. If at any moment they pause, look away from the page, and think about the accuracy of what you’ve written, you’ve taken them out of the story bubble and perhaps their trust in you has fallen. Perhaps you’ve even lost a reader.

I once read a review from a fan of historical fiction that skewered an author for writing a completely inaccurate historical scenario in the third book of the series. This reader then doubted the previous two books and swore off reading anything else from the author.

Don’t let this happen to you. Consult a medical expert if you find yourself writing these scenarios. It’s likely not as expensive as you think.

What about you? Any medical inaccuracies you’ve found in a novel?

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3 thoughts on “When to Consult a Medical Expert

  1. While I’m not in the medical field myself, my boyfriend had a bone-marrow (stem cell) transplant almost a year ago. This required us both to do extensive reading on what was going to happen before, during and after the transplant. Since then, every time I’ve read a story that touched on bmts in some way (which I did a lot around bf’s transplant day) I get thrown out by inaccuracies. For instance one story I read had a character hiding her leukemia for five years from her school friends and her cheerleading squad.

  2. Jordyn, Let me point out that even respected, multi-published authors sometimes skip the simplest bit of research. I did a double-take when a well-known author in the general market talked about a man receiving “IV Vicodin.” A simple Google search would have told him there’s no IV form of that drug. Did it turn me off? Yes. Would the average reader pick it up? Probably not.
    Thanks for all you do in this area.

  3. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 04-24-2014 | The Author Chronicles

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