Side gigs are a hot topic for physicians. Some people do it for the extra cash, others for a chance to stretch and learn something new. Some doctors are looking to pivot from clinical medicine entirely and may use a side gig to test the waters.
Writing, vlogging, and podcasting about side gigs seems to be a genre all its own. Virtually every list of options includes medical writing. But as a medical writer since 2009 and an author of four books aimed at a lay audience, it is clear to me that many, if not most, of these so-called experts are sadly misinformed about the process. The bottom line is this: Unless you are a celebrity with a powerful platform, you probably aren’t going to get rich off of medical writing. Not even a little.
That’s not meant to discourage you. Writing is a fantastic way to clarify your position, share information, and get in front of a larger audience than you might otherwise find. It’s also a terrific way to deepen your own knowledge base. Writing can open doors to other opportunities that you may never have considered. And it will introduce you to a world of people, including publishers and other writers, that can expand and challenge your point of view.
Below, I share my own journey as a medical writer, including the pitfalls and successes. I also offer suggestions that may make your own process easier and more rewarding.
Like many physicians, I have written for medical journals and presented at conferences and grand rounds. As a woman in cardiology in the 1990s, I was enough of an oddity that I was often tapped to give talks and presentations to both professional and lay groups on women and heart disease.
Being comfortable with putting words on paper, and learning to present information in a cohesive, conversational way was an important foundation for my first book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Heart Health, published in 2009. I’ll be honest. This was not a quick or easy process. It took me several years, carving out 30 minutes here and there to work on my project, but the knowledge I accumulated benefitted me and my patients along the way.
My book began as a way to address my patients’ questions about diet, supplements, exercise, stress, and other issues that impact cardiovascular health. I realized that fellowship prepared me very well to take care of critically ill patients, and to competently manage preventive care, but I had a very shallow understanding of the impact of diet and lifestyle, and I knew virtually nothing about supplements. These were the questions that my patients kept bringing to me, and I wasn’t comfortable simply addressing their concerns superficially. At the time, the Adkins diet was resurging, so writing critically was a great way to delve into the medical research.
Like most physicians, I depend strongly on evidence-based care. Writing the book was a fantastic way to educate myself, and to become an expert in an area that was crucial not only to cardiovascular health, but to health and well-being in general. However, it was not a money-making enterprise: The book was published by an independent publisher that required that I pay up front for the services, which included an editor. Though I was happy with the book and reviews, I never made back the money that I put into it.
Two years later, I decided to take a shot at getting a contract with a traditional publishing house. This time, I received an advance, and the book, Best Practices for a Healthy Heart: How to Stop Heart Disease Before or After it Starts, was published in 2011. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to effectively promote my work due to new bylaws from the organization that acquired my practice. That was important because most publishers rely on and may even require their authors to publicize their books.
Nevertheless, having now created a body of work as a medical writer, in 2014 I was asked to co-author The DASH Diet for Dummies with two well-known dietitians who were happy to do promotional work. That book is now in its second edition and sells dozens of copies per week.
Had I never sat down and started writing, my financial bottom line would probably not be much different, but writing has given me so many other interesting opportunities. Writing made me a better educator for patients and trainees, teaching me to communicate more concisely and clearly. It brought many people into my practice, which benefited me, my partners, and my organization. I’ve written for a number of organizations and websites, receiving modest but meaningful compensation for the work. And writing has given me a platform and a way to connect with people from all over the world.
So, how can you get started as a medical writer?
I recommend starting small, testing the waters, and seeing if writing is something that feels right to you. From there, you can always move up.
Create a brief series of handouts for your patients.
For example, perhaps you’re frustrated with the lack of educational resources that you can offer your patients. You have an idea of creating a handout, but you don’t know where to start or how to get it done. Maybe you think someone else would do a better job, and you don’t want to look amateurish, so you just let it slide. Meanwhile, you’re spending extra time trying to get your ideas across to patients in the limited minutes you have in the office schedule. It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds with something like this. But by taking a little time, making a simple outline for yourself, and getting started, you may not only provide something of real value to your patients, but you’ll ultimately create more time to focus on patient care.
Start a blog.
You don’t have to write a book to get your ideas out there. Simply choose a topic you’re interested in, tell a brief story around it, and provide information that you know your patients, family, or friends want to know. Write as if you’re having a conversation, and then stop after a few hundred words. There are all sorts of options for free or low-cost websites on the internet. It’s great to be consistent, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do this regularly. Once a month is a good way to start.
Reach out to a wider audience.
Once you’ve written a few pieces and have your bearings, consider reaching out to your local newspaper to share one of your posts or offer your services. You can also offer your expertise to services like Help a Reporter Out, where journalists are often looking for quotes.
Consider writing brief pieces to post on LinkedIn under your own account. This can be especially useful if you are able to discuss new research or health conditions that appeal to a broad audience.
Consumer health magazines or online resources may also be interested in your work. Check their websites for submission details. One caveat from personal experience: They are often looking for a novel spin on an old problem. I was told more than once that people “don’t want to hear the same old thing” about diet and exercise. When I tried to explain that there is no superfood or supplement that is going to cure heart disease, I was sometimes met with disinterest. Move on and don’t let yourself be sucked in. With a good (and realistic) story and a strong background, you will likely find an audience for well-written evidence-based information.
Consider an e-book.
Self-publishing is a much bigger industry than it was years ago. The downside is that you probably won’t work with an editor on this type of project. Unless you are really confident in your ability to communicate, consider enlisting a colleague or an honest friend to critique your work before putting it out into the world. Or look for a professional editor that can do the work for a fee.
Find a publisher.
Writing a book is not for the faint of heart. The hours you put into it may never be compensated. But there is nothing like the feeling of your own book in your hands. If you are really intent on working with a traditional publisher, you will need a literary agent. Resources such as Publisher’s Marketplace and Writer’s Digest can help you drill down your options.
The bottom line is this: You probably won’t get rich as a medical writer, and you may not even make minimum wage when all is said and done. But you will enrich your experience as a physician, become a better communicator, and create opportunities you may not have even considered. Writing can be a path to lifelong learning, and patients and other physicians will appreciate your expertise. Not to mention, you’ll meet a wide range of people whose paths you may not ever have crossed otherwise. So, go ahead: Let writing feed your curiosity and give you a platform to help others get better and stay well.
Do you have experience with medical writing? Share tips in the comments!
Dr. Sarah Samaan is a cardiologist who retired in 2022 after nearly 30 years of practice. She is a physician coach, a medical writer, a registered yoga teacher, and is currently enrolled in a university BFA program in Photographic Arts. She competes in the equestrian sport of Dressage. Dr. Samaan blogs at MindfulPhysicianCoaching.com and tweets @heartsmarter. She is a 2022–2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.
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