Wiki Pages > Career Management > Career Paths > Medical Writer and Editor
Types of Medical Writers

Description

Medical writers analyze and interpret medical issues in order to present them as understandable and concise in publications such as newspaper health columns, journal articles, brochures, radio and television scripts, and instruction manuals. Medical writers are also called health writers and are often literary and artistic types of people that focus on medical communications, mental health information, and the reporting of other news in the medical field. Medical writing includes the promotion of medical advancements, health promotions, or medical training communications. Successful medical writers have a knowledge and understanding of medicine and science, the ability to write very well, and an aptitude for conducting research and accuracy. They must also take scientific and clinical information and make it understandable for a variety of different audiences.

Types of Medical Writers

There are different types of medical writing. Medical journalism is often written for magazines and newspaper read by a lay audience. Medical education is often written for doctors and patients, and medical marketing often deals with promotional literature directed toward healthcare professionals. Medical writing can be classified into two types: scientific and non-scientific. Scientific medical writers work on communications projects for professional audiences, sometimes in very specialized areas. Many scientific medical writers also have degrees in a basic or clinical science area, often learning about writing by actually becoming a medical writer. Non-scientific medical writers work on communications projects with less technical content (like health articles for newspapers or magazines, patient education materials, or marketing products.) Non-scientific medical writers may write for either professional or lay audiences. Many of them have degrees in journalism, English, communications, or a related field, and they often learn about medicine by becoming a medical writer. Scientific and non-scientific medical writing are often two distinct career paths, although some people do both types of medical writing. However, it is more common for more established medical writers to do both types of writing than it is for new medical writers.

Responsibilities of a Medical Writer

There are many different aspects of the job of being a medical writer. While most of them do revolve around writing, medical writers must also meet and communicate with different people, including clients and physicians. The tasks and responsibilities of a medical writer include:
  • Providing writing for people that are carrying out scientific studies/clinical trials
  • Working with authors/clients to produce content which either promotes a product (such as in the pharmaceutical industry) or provides information about a topic in the medical industry
  • Working on papers from clinical reports
  • Writing reports on scientific congresses/meetings
  • Meeting with a client to discuss a project
  • Helping doctors write research articles, monographs and reviews on topics in the medical field
  • Writing about research/discoveries for medical journals, Web sites, newsletters, newspapers and magazines that include health/medical issues
Daily tasks vary greatly from job to job. According to the University of California at San Francisco, there are many tasks that need to be completed at any given time for a medical writer. An overall project requires the following tasks:
  • Recruitment of patients using interviews and data collection from medical charts
  • Literature searches
  • Data management by programming and organization
  • Data analysis
  • Communication with partners and sponsors throughout the U.S. and occasionally internationally
  • Writing and proofreading
  • Turning research ideas into study design including organizations, forms, and databases
  • Using outside communications such as website design and maintenance, correspondence, and networking
  • Organization of meetings with clients and staff
The job involves a great deal of interaction with colleagues, such as project managers, account managers, designers, and printers. So, writers need to be able to adapt to different situations and interact with a number of people. Medical writers work with journal editors in order to write and edit documents appropriately and meet deadlines. They must attend meetings, spend time with clients, and be involved with account managers in order to plan projects. Traveling to meetings and conferences is often part of the job in order to represent one’s company. Some of the most important conferences are held by the American Medical Writers Associations and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. More information about these conferences can be found on their websites: American Medical Writer's Association American Association for the the Advancement of Science The main responsibilities for medical editors include planning, coordinating, and editing content that they are given for publication purposes. In addition, they have to review drafts before they are submitted for final publications to correct any errors and make sure the material is coherent. Deciding the layouts, content, and revising the final work are all tasks that are up to a medical editor in most cases. They must also organize times to meet with authors to clarify information they are given, and make sure that all of their points are clear, concise, and correct. It is important for medical editors to plan and allot enough time to perform all of these tasks efficiently, meeting the necessary deadlines. All in all, an effective medical editor understands and implements guidelines, edits course content, checks for grammatical and spelling errors, train colleagues, work with experts, understands the editing requirements at various stages, and meets all of these expectations in a timely manner. This can take many years of experience and years of schooling, but all of the requirements and tasks vary by different companies.

What Types of Documents Does a Medical Writer Produce?

There are several different types of documents that a medical writer may be asked to produce. These documents can be put into two categories: Regulatory and Marketing/Other. Regulatory documents are used to fulfill requirements in products development and/or regulate the product at a stage in its development. Marketing products are used for marketing or other more general purposes. Examples of regulatory documents include:
  • Protocols
  • Clinical study reports
  • Patient brochures
  • Safety summaries
  • Summaries of the product's characteristics
  • Investigator brochures
  • Examples of marketing documents include:
  • Manuscripts to be published
  • Abstracts
  • Conference notes
  • Literature reviews
  • Material for training
  • Advertising
Other types of projects medical writers work on include:
  • Ads
  • Reports
  • Books
  • Brochures
  • Educational materials/Slide kits that doctors and nurses can use to prepare for license renewals
  • Fact sheets for Web sites or government organizations
  • Grant proposals
  • Internet material
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Patient information material
  • Press release information
  • Sales training manuals
  • Scripts
  • Speeches

Qualities/Desired Skills of a Medical Writer

"Since medical reporting...has become a distinct, progressive, and important science in itself, and since precise adaptability of stenographic writing to medical terminology has become a permanent necessity among medical men, in scientific debates, expert medical testimony, etc., it is quite evident that the position of the official medical stenographer is one of especial responsibility and dignity" (Gould). As with any other career, being a medical writer requires a certain set of skills and qualities that allow for a better understanding and execution of the tasks you're given. Companies sometimes look for writers with experience in a specific area of the medical field, and although an advanced medical degree (i.e. MD, PhD, PharmD) in the field isn't required, it is advantageous. Companies may expect you to have a first degree in life science, and a basic understanding of human anatomy and physiology is important. Also, good negotiation skills are often required because multiple parties (medics and academics who have carried out research) will have an interest in a particular matter, and oftentimes their opinions will differ on how a write-up should be produced. Having excellent writing skills is an absolute must because of the reliance on the ability to write, edit, and publish well-written documents. There cannot be errors in the medical field due to the importance of the accuracy of the writing. An error can cause catastrophic problems as stated by medical writer Michelle Stofa. One of the most important skills required by a medical writer is to make information understandable to the type of audience for whom it is intended. Knowing how to evaluate different audiences is key. Other skills and qualities a medical writer should possess include:
  • Good language skills
  • Ability to take constructive criticism
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to meet deadlines in a competitive environment
  • Ability to see relationships between ideas/organize complex information

Education Needed for Medical Writing

Dr. Tamara Ball, a medical doctor, writer and member of AMWA, suggested becoming a certified editor in the medical field first.  In doing so, experience will be gained in the medical field.  Dr. Ball stated that in order to become a certified medical editor, one should take the Board of Editors in Life Science exam.  Passing the exam would grant certification as an editor utilizing the American Medical Associations’ style guide and regulations.   According to Education-Portal .com, most medical writers begin with a Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s degree in journalism or English and begin to build their medical writing experience by contributing to science publications and association newsletters.  Some universities offer medical writing courses and medical communication/writing degrees. Many of the schools that offer medical writing certificates are online schools/universities. According to Dr. Suhasini Sharma there is no formal degree or certification course in medical writing.  Training in this field usually involves:
  • In-house training
  • Short courses/workshops by professionals
  • Mentor-training (on- the job)
  • Self-study
To attain the necessary skills needed for medical writing/communication there are two elements that must be considered: self-study and courses offering formal training.

Self-Study

The American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) recommends conducting your own research in the medical field.  That is to say that medical terminology books, software and studying the material will provide education in the field as well as keep you up to date.  Reading medical journals and signing up for a medical news website is a way to stay “in-the-know”.   The AMWA website also provides a resources list for those who are pursuing the medical writing field.

Courses

Taking courses and earning a certificate is an aspect that will be somewhat beneficial.  Earning a Master’s degree in medical writing/communication is the most beneficial.  Johns Hopkins is one of the most prestigious schools that offers a Master of Arts degree in Science-Medical Writing.  According to the John Hopkins University core requirements for the program, the following courses and workshops are to be taken:
  • Principles of Journalism
  • Combines Workshop in Non-Fiction and Workshop in Science Medical Writing
  •  3 Science-Medical Writing Workshops
  • Science Policy and Politics
  • The Literature of Science
  • Medicine in Action: Advanced Medical Writing
  • Science in Action
  • Prize Winners: The Best Writing about Science, Technology, Environment and Health
  • Thesis
Dr. Tamara Ball is an active member of AMWA.  Dr. Ball’s advice is to take medical or science courses that allow for new knowledge and growth.  The American Medical Writers Association offers courses and workshops that assist in pursuing the medical writing career path.  The workshops and courses help in gaining experience.

Universities

Education-Portal .com and Dr. Sharma both agree that Medical Writing is a growing field.  There seems to be limited information on the subject as to a precise way to become involved in the field.  The career is even described as being a difficult one to get into.  There are some universities that offer courses in medical writing.  The schools/universities that offer medical writing courses include but, are not limited to:
  • Johns Hopkins University [Classroom based]
  • Kaplan University [Online]
  • Ecpi University [Online and Classroom based]
  • University of Phoenix [Online and Classroom based]
  • Baker College [Online]
  • Florida Technical University [Online]
Technical writer and active member of Society for Technical Communication, Pam Sarantos and Dr. Tamara Ball both expressed the importance of networking as well as taking workshops through the Society for Technical Communication and the American Medical Writers Association.  Becoming involved in freelance work for an organization will help in gaining experience. The American Medical Writers Association offers a list serve for freelance medical writers.  On this website prospective candidates can upload their credentials into the database.  Establishments seeking freelance medical writers are able to find a candidate in the database.

Experience

Certain jobs require verbal skills because of the communication that is required between writers and medical staff. A medical editor needs to be able to understand the written content and then translate it into comprehensible material. This requires a significant amount of time because the medical editor must read research papers and talk to scientists and doctors in order to gather a large amount of information. They must be able to understand and translate material such as visual guides, manuscripts, posters, and abstracts. Many medical writers advise potential writers to not be discouraged by the requirement of “suitable experience” when looking for a job. Although it is beneficial to have a degree in a life science, there are numerous medical writers that have backgrounds in very different fields. It is more important to be able to work in a group setting and have the ability to pay close attention to details and to be able to write accordingly.

Where Can Medical Writers Be Employed?

The list of potential places of employment for medical writers is extensive. Opportunities for employment lie not only in hospitals or medical offices, but also in other medical and communication companies. Potential places of employment for a medical writer may include:
  • Medical communication agencies that are either privately owned or are part of a larger corporation
  • Pharmaceutical companies/industry
  • Self-employment (free-lancing)
  • Hospitals/Medical centers
  • Publishers
  • Medical Schools/Universities
  • Web site developers
  • Medical advertising/Communication agencies

Salary

Many factors play a part in the overall salary of a medical writer, including gender, region, background, and education. Here is an example of the different levels of education for men and women and the reflecting average salaries:
  • Bachelor: Men (90,640) Women (73,522)
  • Masters: Men (86,240) Women (77,339)
  • Advanced: Men (101,872) Women (91,797)

Professional Organizations

Professional organizations such as the National Associations of Science Writers and the American Medical Writers Association are often good places to begin getting involved in the field. In addition, medical writing is an up and coming international field, with professional organizations for Canadian, European, Indian, and Australian medical writers. These organizations recommend both informal and formal training to learn about the field of medical writing. Some examples of informal training include but are not limited to: reading medical and pharmaceutical journals, keeping current with the Food and Drug Administration, developing computer skills, and becoming familiar with the FDA guidelines for regulatory documents. On the other hand, formal training in medical writing can include taking courses at an accredited University, completing a degree program at the University level, and attending workshops held by colleges and Universities.

Bibliography

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