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Making the Move to Medical Writing: Perspectives from the Health and Medicine Special Interest Group (SIG)

By Porschia Parker | Guest Columnist

This column provides information on trends, practices, and resources for applying technical communication skills in health and medical settings. Contact the columnist, Kirk St.Amant, at kirk.stamant@gmail.com.

In early 2019, STC Health and Medicine Special Interest Group (SIG) members Alisa Bonsignore, Kelly Schrank, and Kirk St.Amant participated in an interview for the online publication BioSpaces. The objective was to provide insights on making the move to medical writing.

Questions were crafted by career coach and consultant Porschia Parker, and an abridged version of that interview was published in the article “Medical Writing: A Flexible Career Choice.”

The following is an expanded version of certain responses, and the interviewees welcome questions or comments on their responses via Twitter (@STCHealthMed) or in our Facebook group (STC HealthMed).

What is a medical (technical) writer?

Kelly Schrank: Very simply, a medical (technical) writer is a technical writer in a medical field.

Kirk St.Amant: Technical writers take scientific or technical information, find the best way to convey it to a particular audience, and then design materials that share that information effectively with that audience. It’s about understanding what audiences want or need to do in a given situation, and providing information in ways that allows them to achieve this objective. Technical writers do everything from creating instructional manuals to developing websites to designing interfaces and apps.

Medical writers create informational or instructional materials for use in health or medical contexts; their materials allow different audiences to

  • Understand health and medical situations or practices;
  • Perform certain health- or medical-related activities; and
  • Use a particular health or medical product or device.

Typical activities include creating pamphlets on public health practices for a local clinic, writing manuals that accompany a pacemaker or defibrillator, or creating website content that explains a treatment to a patient. The key is knowing the audience, what information they need, and in what format they need the information to accomplish an objective related to a health or medical topic.

Alisa Bonsignore: When I first went independent, I realized that there was a lucrative niche in the gray area between technical/clinical writing and marketing. My core business involves writing about things that require a solid technical understanding and yet are written for a non-technical audience.

I often work across departments, interacting with technical or clinical specialists, lawyers, marketing professionals, clinical educators, regulatory specialists, and executive teams, but I also provide strategy and advisory services to help my clients understand and empathize with their users’ pain points.

What do you think are the differences between a medical (technical) writer and other technical writer positions?

St.Amant: The differences include:

  • Specialized focus in a particular area—health and medicine.
  • Working in a regulated environment where you need to account for both a target audience and a regulatory agency that oversees your work.

Schrank: To me, the difference is the industry you are working in and its constraints; for example, technical writers who are writing procedures for medical devices or in pharmaceutical manufacturing environments.

Bonsignore: Medical writing is highly regulated, which provides unique constraints, not only on what can be said but where and how.

What are some of the top benefits of being a medical (technical) writer?

Schrank: Two things for me are the constant state of change in pharma as an industry and as an editor, the opportunity for a higher rate of pay.

Bonsignore: As an independent, I have the flexibility to work on the types of projects that I enjoy, while focusing on compelling disease states or innovative medical technologies. There’s plenty of opportunity for learning and research.

St.Amant: The benefits include:

  • Being part of something big and important that can really help others, like developing a new technology.
  • Always learning something new about science, medicine, and health, as well as healthcare and treatments.
  • Being part of a network doing interesting and exciting things.
  • A dynamic environment where you are continually learning and can feel like you are making a difference.
Have you noticed any new trends related to the medical writing profession?

Bonsignore: Generally, changes in the medical writing profession happen more slowly than on the tech side. Tech tends to be more about moving fast and breaking things, while medical moves at the slower pace of R&D and regulatory. I think there’s also been more of an awareness of new media and new ways to present information, although that has been a slow-moving change.

Schrank: I am hearing clients ask for infographics and infographic-like documents, so data visualization beyond slide decks and posters are a popular topic.

St.Amant: The use of social media to share information (for example, updates on a medical situation), test products (for example, trial interfaces for a product), and provide suggestions or advice (for example, prospective treatments for a situation). The fact that these technologies allow information to be shared so quickly and directly with so many people—as well as provide instant, direct access to so many individuals—creates both new opportunities and challenges that medial writers need to understand, work with, and address.

How competitive is it to become a medical writer?

St.Amant: It depends on the state of the industries in the health and medical areas. If those industries are expanding, the need for medical writers generally grows in response, and the options increase. The same forces tend to affect what prospective employers look for when hiring medical writers. If the financial situation is good, organizations might provide training to help writers enhance their skills in certain areas or supplement their knowledge of a topic. This approach allows a wider range of individuals with different backgrounds to be viable candidates for jobs. If such on-the-job training is not available, the expectation or need for job applicants to have specialized training could increase, which affects job prospects and competitiveness.

Schrank: It really depends on what you want to do, your credentials, and your location. It’s always hard to get an entry-level writing position, but if you happen to have an advanced degree in a scientific field and are located near a pharmaceutical area (like Philadelphia and New Jersey) and you want to be a medical writer, you have a better chance than someone with a Bachelor’s degree in English living in Idaho. More remote opportunities are opening up, but it’s much harder to start your career as a remote worker; companies are more likely to train you if you are in-house.

Bonsignore: It depends on where we are in the economic cycle. Having done this for more than 20 years, I have seen plenty of ups and downs. But like any profession, once you have a solid network of clients and colleagues, it’s much easier to find work, even in the down times.

What advice would you give to aspiring medical writers?

Bonsignore: Make lots of connections, both with other medical writers and with other healthcare industry professionals.

Find the area that you find most compelling—medical device, pharma, hospital—and build your base there.

Even when a client gives you the supporting information, do your own research. You’ll ask better questions and be able to deliver a better finished product.

St.Amant: Know the area: learn about the industries you wish to work in, and learn about the products or services they specialize in.

Know the resources: learn about the resources available to keep up with an industry or the products and services of an industry, and learn where to find effective and accurate information to supplement your knowledge of a topic.

Know the people: networks are important to keep up with new practices, get answers to key questions, or learn about emerging resources. Networks with other professionals in the healthcare sector can be sources of health and medical information and employment opportunities or trends in an industry.

Schrank: You’d better like researching, learning, presenting, writing, and editing if you want to get into this field. There will always be new software to learn, new terminology and topics, new platforms, news ways of communicating (such as video).

Start a blog or a YouTube channel or create a poster or infographic on something you are interested in—preferably something professional, but really anything that shows you can communicate and use technology to make your point.

The SIG

The STC Technical Communication in Health and Medicine Special Interest Group (HealthMed SIG) provides members with information on trends, practices, and resources for applying technical communication skills in health and medical settings. The SIG’s mission is to help members who have different levels of familiarity with health and medical topics learn how to apply their skills in different health and medical contexts.

References

Parker, Porschia. “Medical Writing: A Flexible Career Choice,” BioSpaces. https://www.biospace.com/article/medical-writing-a-flexible-career-choice.

ALISA BONSIGNORE (alisa@clarifyingcomplexideas.com) runs Clarifying Complex Ideas, a strategic communications consultancy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She helps companies communicate complicated topics, including medical devices and pharmaceuticals/genomics, network security, healthcare IT, and policy development and sustainability communications surrounding companies’ efforts to improve their supply chains and meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). She is serving her second term on the Society for Technical Communication (STC) Board of Directors, and she is also a longtime member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). You can contact her on Twitter at @clearwriter.

KIRK ST.AMANT (kirk.stamant@gmail.com) is the Eunice C. Williamson Chair in Technical Communication and a member of the Center for Biomedical Engineering and Rehabilitation Science (CBERS) at Louisiana Tech University. A former Co-Manager of the STC’s Health and Medicine Special Interest Group (HealthMed SIG), he is a Co-Director of the Louisiana Section of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). You can contact him on Twitter at @Kirk_StAmant.

KELLY SCHRANK (headbookworm@gmail.com) is a technical and medical editor and Head Bookworm at Bookworm Editing Services. As an experienced writer and editor of medical, technical, and marketing communication, she has created and improved documentation, websites, marketing materials, newsletters, slide decks, standard responses, dossiers, training materials, and product manuals, for a variety of industries, including the pharmaceutical industry. She is President of the Rochester Chapter of STC, CoManager of the Technical Editing Special Interest Group (TE SIG), and Marketing and Promotions Councilor for the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS). You can contact her on Twitter at @headbookworm.

PORSCHIA PARKER (pparker@fly-highcoaching.com) is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries. You can contact her via her website: https://www.fly-highcoaching.com.

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