Depending on your level of experience with this topic, it may surprise you to learn that not all medical writers have any sort of medical degree, and not all clinicians who write are “medical writers” per say. Furthermore, just because you have a medical degree does not mean you have the skills (or interest) to write about it.
For the rare combination of the healer and the poet, there is a whole world of opportunity waiting for you.
However, if you aren’t there yet — but you know you want to be — there are a few things you probably want to know first, such as:
- How do I get started?
- What are (paying) opportunities that are out there?
- How do I choose a topic?
I’ll show you a simple way to answer these questions at the end of the post, so stay tuned.
First, a special thanks to all the clinicians who expressed their interest in this topic. And double thanks to those who sent in their questions to us at Modern MedEd. We’ve heard of various concerns and barriers many of you have experienced that inhibit your journey to becoming a medical writer. If you’d like to help, feel free to answer our quick, two-question survey.
We will answer all these questions in due time, but for today’s post, let’s get down to the basics and start with a seemingly basic question that has a potentially less-than-obvious answer.
What Exactly is Medical Writing?
Let’s break it down from the top. In the broadest sense, we have three main categories of medical communications: medical writing, health writing, and scientific communications. The distinction may seem arbitrary and depending on who you ask, it can be.
Admittedly, this classification is subjective and ever-changing, with meaning dependent on a myriad of outside factors. But we’ll do our best to explain them here.
Scientific communications mostly involve academic publications, science journalism, and other forms of technical writing.
The concept of health writing refers to the articles, educational material, and other content directed at patients or consumers.
Meanwhile, medical writing lives directly across from health writing in this industry. It is usually more technical because it serves the business to business (B2B) side of this economy. We’ll get into the major subcategories of this niche below.
Within the medical writing world, you have three further “sub-specialties” to choose: regulatory writing, promotional writing, and medical education. Here is a brief overview of each one with links to more in-depth articles for those who are interested.
Folks in regulatory medical writing are almost always scientists or clinicians because of the technical nature of the products. Regulatory writers communicate important information to government agencies, heads of compliance departments, and other reviewers.
Examples of their work include summarizing complex scientific and statistical data for reviewers of a new drug application.
There are many courses designed to help you learn the basics if you are interested. Do your own research before paying for any of them because there are good and bad ones out there.
Here’s an example of a good one from the American Medical Writers Association—a reputable trade organization for medical communications professionals.
Because of the inherent difficulty and high financial stakes of this work, it can be quite lucrative for those who can get in and prove their value.
Promotional medical writing, on the other hand, is educational material for a specific brand. Essentially, it is content marketing for the healthcare industry. Before you turn your nose up at this branch of writing, we should establish that “marketing” is not synonymous with “lying”— in fact, we should recognize the importance of this type of copy.
Many of us think we fear the snake-charmer salesperson who convinces us to buy their garbage product. In reality, we fear the feeling of looking foolish. However, I do not believe any marketer or copywriter is that good. Clinicians are smart and as far as I can tell, just as immune to this type of manipulation as the rest of the population. Plus, this branch is not what is used to be. And I mean that positively.
And if you’re not convinced, then all the more reason you should try it. Healthcare needs good, honest clinicians contributing to this type of work. It will only benefit us all.
Promotional medical writing can involve publications planning, sales training, drug monographs, advertising copy, or other products designed to move the reader to action.
Medical education includes most of what we as clinicians are already used to seeing. You find your continuing medical education (CME) programming, board-review products, disease monographs, and other educational materials here.
The information intends to educate readers without hinting of bias for or against any specific brand or product. Just the facts, man. You can also act as a subject matter expert for the writers who are not experts themselves in this field.
This is where I got my start, and thus where I have the most experience. Medical education is a reasonably attainable field for clinicians to enter for a number of reasons. First, we show up with the experience and knowledge needed to do the job. Secondly, clinicians want to learn from their colleagues with battlefield experience. For example, a page about concussions has more credibility when you know it was written by a clinician with practical experience in the topic. (Read more about writing for medical education in our first article about non-clinical careers.)
There is also more to medical writing than only, well, writing. The written word is the lifeblood of our communications, however, that’s not the only way we learn from each other. Today, we also have (mostly free) access to high-quality medical education through videos, audio podcasts, mobile apps, and online communities. These are all unique and growing platforms for medical education to thrive.
Your Next Steps…
Want to try your hand at medical writing but not sure where to start? Any of the links above will help you with starting out. You can also search online job boards for medical writer positions in your area.
For a more personal touch, here’s a book on freelance medical writing that I think is extremely valuable to any clinician with even a passing interest in medical writing. The author, Emma Hitt, is a PhD who is extremely well-known in the medical writing world. She teaches other scientists and clinicians how to make a living from freelance medical writing.
Here are a few other useful resources to learn how to get started yourself.
Jordan Roberts is a neurosurgical PA and part-time medical writer who creates awesome medical education for all clinicians. Owner of Modern MedEd, where a version of the article was originally published.
Disclosure: Some links in the article may lead to affiliate partners. Making a purchase through these links does not increase the price readers pay, but may earn Modern MedEd a commission.