Medical Writing: A Flexible Career Choice

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Have you thought about alternative careers in the life sciences industry? Are you interested in working outside of the traditional laboratory or research environment? Recently, we spoke with a couple of seasoned recruiting professionals and identified the top 10 non-traditional careers for life science professionals. One of the popular choices was in the medical technical writing field. To find out more, we interviewed three experts and leaders of the Health and Medicine Special Interest Group within the Society of Technical Communication. The special interest group provides members with information on trends, practices, and resources for applying technical communication skills in health and medical settings.

1. What is a medical technical writer? How did you become one?

Dr. Kirk St.Amant: Technical writers do everything from create instructional manuals, to develop websites, to design interfaces and apps. A medical writer is someone who creates informational or instructional materials for use in health or medical context. These are materials that allow different audiences to understand health and medical situations or practices, perform certain health or medical-related activities, or use a particular health or medical product or device.

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 audience.

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

Dr. Kirk St.Amant: Two things: specialized focus in a particular area, health and medicine and working in a regulated environment where you need to account for both a target audience and a regulatory agency that oversees your work.

Alisa Bonsignore: Medical writing is highly regulated in ways other professions are not. This provides unique constraints, not only on what can be said, but where and how.

3. What are some of the top benefits of being a medical writer?

Dr. Kirk St.Amant: It’s thrilling, for you often feel like you are part of something big and important that can really help others – like when you are part of a team working on developing a new technology.

Alisa Bonsignore: For me, 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, which is exactly how I like it.

Kelly Schrank: Two things for me are the constant change and as an editor, the opportunity for a higher rate of pay. The only constant is change in pharma as an industry, which brings new opportunities and new things to learn about. Having a specialization, medical or other is usually financially healthy.

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4. Have you noticed any new trends related to the medical writing profession?

Dr. Kirk St.Amant: The use of social media to share information, test products, and provide suggestions or advice. The fact that these technologies allow information to be shared so quickly and directly…creates both new opportunities and challenges that medical writers need to understand, work with, and address.

Alisa 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 a slower pace of R&D and regulatory. I’ve noticed more of a move towards freelancers, but I think that’s tied to economic cycles.

Kelly Schrank: I see very little DITA or single sourcing in medical writing. They are much more focused on the subject matter expertise and advanced degrees (PhD and PharmD) than software skills. One thing I am hearing clients ask for are infographics…so data visualization beyond slide decks (PowerPoints) and posters are a popular topic.

5. How competitive is it to become a medical writer?

Dr. Kirk 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… 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.

Alisa Bonsignore: Having done this for more than 20 years, there have been 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…

Kelly Schrank: It really depends on what you want to do, your credentials, and your location. It’s always hard to get an entry-level position writing. But if you happen to have an advanced degree in a scientific field and are located near a pharmaceutical area (like Philadelphia/New Jersey)…you have a better chance than someone with a bachelor’s degree in English living in Idaho.

6. What advice would you give to aspiring medical writers?

Dr. Kirk 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: much of this involves learning about the resources available to keep up with an industry or products and services. Know the people: Being plugged into the medical writing community can be essential to keeping up with new practices, getting answers to key questions, or learning about emerging resources.

Alisa Bonsignore: Make lots of connections, both with other medical writers and with other healthcare industry professionals. Find the area you find most compelling (medical device, pharma, hospital, etc.) and build your base there. Even when a client gives you supporting information you need to get the job done, do your own research. PubMed is your friend as you try to find pain points and understand the broader context.

Kelly Schrank: You better like researching, learning, presenting, writing, and editing if you want to get into this field. Start a blog or 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.

Medical writing is a career path available to life science professionals who enjoy communicating with a variety of audiences. This role can be extremely flexible in aspects such as working environment, types of projects, and work schedule. Medical writers often have the ability to focus on specific niche areas within life science, biotech, and or medical devices. If you have a desire to learn new things, share information, and help others, it might be the perfect fit for you.

Porschia Parker 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.

Dr. Kirk St.Amant is the Eunice C. Williamson Chair in Technical Communication and a member of the Center for Biomedical Engineering and Rehabilitation Science at Louisiana Tech University. He is also an Adjunct Professor with the University of Limerick in Ireland and a Guest Professor at Southeast University in China.

Alisa Bonsignore runs Clarifying Complex Ideas, a strategic communications consultancy. She helps companies communicate complicated topics, including medical devices, pharmaceuticals/genomics, network security, healthcare IT, and policy development.

Kelly Schrank is a technical and medical editor and Head Bookworm at Bookworm Editing Services. She is an experienced writer and editor of medical, technical, and marketing communications for a variety of industries.

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