Columns March/April 2020

Breaking into Medical Communication

By Anna Lerew-Phillips | Guest Columnist

Medical communicators, such as writers, editors, and journalists, produce a variety of materials for different audiences, including:

  • Healthcare journalists who produce newspaper, magazine, and web articles or documentaries, blog posts, and health segments for news shows
  • Regulatory communicators who draft clinical protocols, new drug applications, documents for devices, and other submission documents
  • Academic writers who compose grant applications, proposals for researchers at medical centers, and academic institutions, as well as academic papers and scientific journals

Furthermore, the prospects of employment look good based on certain trends.

  • 2.5 million increase in scientific journal publication annually
  • 28% increase in continuing education for healthcare professionals
  • 1,567% increase in clinical trials from 2005 to 2016

These trends and other factors mean the demand for medical communicators to develop content is high.

Educational Backgrounds 

Writers with humanities backgrounds might feel intimidated entering a field dominated by science. A humanities education, however, trains people to think, read, and write critically—skills considered core competencies of medical communication.

In other cases, individuals with scientific backgrounds make excellent medical writers, because as part of a particular professional audience, they can often communicate well with that audience. These people typically begin their careers as scientists, academics, physicians, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals but decide to switch careers later.  In the end, it is an interest in communication and a desire to work in the health and medical areas that are often central to moving into this field.

Essential Skill Sets 

Regardless of educational background, all medical communications need to be able to:

  • Think critically
  • Write clearly and concisely for an audience
  • Gather, analyze, interpret, and integrate scientific data
  • Perform literature searches
  • Simplify complex concepts
  • Manage projects and schedules

One way to gain such skills is through focused training programs, such as the American Medical Writers (AMWA) certificate programs (for example, the Essential Skills Certificate Program). In other cases, you can take courses in communication programs at various educational institutions. The key is to find the program that offers training in the skills associated specifically with health and medical communication.

You can also join a professional organization to learn more about this area. Organizations provide members with networking opportunities and educational resources needed to move into a particular area. The STC’s Health and Medical Communication Special Interest Group, for example, has begun offering webinars and materials to help technical communicators move to medical communication.  Other organizations, like AMWA, focus specifically on this area and provide similar resources for members.

Making the Move to Medical Communication 

Making the move to medical communication looks different for everyone, but you can begin by:

Assessing abilities

First, assess your education, experience, background, and interests to determine whether all of these align. Some career paths will be undesirable or unrealistic, because the education, experience, and background do not line up with interests. For example, writers without direct knowledge of clinical trials will likely not find work in regulatory writing.  Writers can use an entry-level position, however, to learn about clinical trials and find opportunities to demonstrate their writing and editing skills for regulatory writing and thus work their way up to regulatory writing. Therefore, aligning education, experience, background, and interests is an essential step to finding the right job.

Revising resumes

Modify your resume and emphasize your writing experience. Avoid selling yourself short, and honestly evaluate your transferrable skills. This can yield hidden strengths and weaknesses that highlight what educational pathways you might take. Academics, for example, could show how their classroom management and committee meetings and projects can transfer over to “a team player with management experience.”

Amass experience

Many new writers qualify for a job, but they lack minimum experience requirements. To address this situation, you try the following tactics.

  • Write for yourself. Choose topics that interest and challenge you, set deadlines, and meet them. Knowing your writing process and understanding of how projects unfold helps foster needed time management skills before accepting work.
  • Write for others. Use your network, and offer help to other writers—and ask for their feedback.
  • Volunteer to write for the newsletters, blogs, or websites of non-profit organizations or advocacy groups. Many such organizations need experienced writers, but cannot pay them, so gaining experience with volunteer work is mutually beneficial.

A mix, or even one, of these strategies can help you to build experience and hone your skills.

Clarify objectives

Finally, before making the move to medical writing, ask yourself:

  • What area of medical communication do I want to work in?
  • Do I want to write for a professional or public audience?
  • Do I want to report about new drugs and medical devices or write the regulatory content for them?
  • Do I want the independence of freelancing or the community of staff employment?

The more you understand your preferences, the better their outcome.

Final Thoughts

The topics and approaches discussed here can help you to make the move to medical writing.  By understanding the field, you can make informed choices that can help you move into it more effectively.

ANNA LEREW-PHILLIPS (annalerew@gmail.com) double majored in psychology and English for her undergraduate degree and earned her MA in English at Midwestern State University under the mentorship of Dr. Sally Henschel. Her psychology degree influenced her graduate work, especially independent studies in technical and medical communication, which culminated in her thesis, “Conceptual Metaphors in Direct-to-Consumer [Pharmaceutical] Advertising.” Her other scholarly interests include the roles of verbal and non-verbal (i.e., body) language, gender, and age in advertising. She hopes to transition from academic to practitioner in 2020.

This column provides information on trends, practices, and resources for applying technical communication skills in health and medical settings. Columnist Kirk St.Amant 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. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Technical Communication with the University of Limerick in Ireland and a Guest Professor of Usability Studies with Southeast University in China. He contributes two columns (“The Cognitive Communicator” and the new “Health and Medical Communication”) to STC’s Intercom magazine and serves on Intercom’s Editorial Board. Contact him at kirk.stamant@gmail.com to submit or pitch a column idea.

References

Alexander, Lori, and Lili Fox Velez. “Medical Communication: a Branch of the Technical Communication Tree.” Intercom, 2010, 13-16.

American Medical Writers Association, “About Medical Communication: What Is a Medical Communicator.” www.amwa.org. 

American Medical Writers Association, “A Career in Medical Communication: Steps to Success.” Accessed 2 March 2020. http://amwa.mycrowdwisdom.com/diweb/catalog/item/id/1049840/.

American Medical Writers Association. “Essential Skills Certificate Program.” Accessed 2 March 2020. https://www.amwa.org/page/Essential_Skills

Hudson, Sue, and Michele Vivirito. “Results of the 2008 Membership Survey.” AMWA Journal 23, no. 4 (2008): 198–200. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.amwa.org/resource/resmgr/journal/Issues/2008/2008v23n4.pdf. 

Kryder, Cynthia L., and Brian G. Bass. The Accidental Medical Writer: How We Became Successful Freelance Writers ; How You Can, Too. Place of publication not identified: Cynthia L. Kryder and Brian G. Bass, 2008. 

STC Health and Medical Communication Special Interest Group. Accessed 2 March 2020. https://www.stchealthmed.org/.

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