Healthcare lessons from the PEN America Literary Gala

Founded a century ago in 1922, PEN America (the abbreviation short for “Poets, Essayists and Novelists”) champions the freedom to write, and the power of writing to change minds—and even the world.

Literary greats Eugene O’Neill and Robert Frost were among the organization’s founding members. Since then, renown authors John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou EL Doctorow, John Updike, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Thomas Mailer joined to support the organization’s mission.

I was invited to attend the 2023 PEN America annual literary gala and serve as a Literary Hosts. Hosted this week in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, the event featured my latest book Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors & Patients along with works by dozens of other authors including, Jennifer Egan, Gay Talese, Robert A. Caro and Annette Gordon-Reed, among others.

Readers know that many of history’s greatest writers were and are physicians. They include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes series), Oliver Sacks (the “poet laureate” of contemporary medicine) and, of course, Abraham Varghese, whose newest book The Covenant of Water is pure poetry (I’ll be interviewing him on the Fixing Healthcare podcast in early June).

The evening’s surprise guest was the legendary author Salman Rushdie who made an unannounced appearance to accept the Centenary Courage Award. This was the first time Rushdie had appeared in public since he was stabbed and seriously injured at a literary event nine months ago.

His remarks were brief but incredibly emotional. He reminded the 600 guests in the room that freedom of expression remained under siege, both in our country and abroad. He encouraged everyone to stand up to repression and ignorance.

As I listened to him speak, I realized the close linkage between literary and medical freedom.

Across America, states are banning books and prohibiting students and teachers from speaking or writing various words and descriptions. And similarly, doctors are being prohibited from providing the medical care and information patients need to protect their health and well-being. In countries around the world, writers and physicians, readers and patients can be prosecuted and even killed when their words and actions threaten those in power.

Although none of the speakers mentioned medicine, the lesson communicated was directly applicable. Anywhere that free speech is prohibited, the doctor-patient relationship is at risk.

Highlighting these risks, PEN America gave an award (in absentia) to Narges Mohammadi, a writer and human rights defender currently jailed in Tehran on propaganda charges. She has not seen her family for most of the past decade and has been subjected to prolonged periods of solitary confinement and psychological torture. The courage to stand up to repression on behalf of others proves essential both for writers and physicians. When courage disappears, people risk losing their voice and their health.

I applaud PEN America for its tireless efforts to bring these important stories and urgent threats to the nation’s attention.

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Dr. Robert Pearl is the former CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, the nation’s largest physician group. He’s a Forbes contributor, bestselling author, Stanford University professor, and host of two healthcare podcasts. Pearl’s newest book, “Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors & Patients,” is available now. All profits from the book go to Doctors Without Borders.

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