Nowhere is it more important that information is conveyed clearly and accurately than in the field of medicine. If the information is factually wrong, misleading or written in a way that's difficult to understand, it can do a great deal of harm.
In recent years, the value of good medical writing has been increasingly recognised, the status of medical writers has risen and the range of opportunities grown. In pharmaceutical companies and contract research organisations (CROs), medical writers are involved throughout the development of a new drug. Documents range from protocols, which describe how each study is to be run, through to submissions to regulatory authorities, which describe the effectiveness and safety of a new drug and present a case for why it should be approved for use. You can also write manuscripts for publication in medical journals, informative material for doctors, nurses or patients, and promotional material for sales and marketing teams. Whatever work you do, you should gain a good overview of the business and have the satisfaction of seeing projects through from start to finish. In pharmaceutical companies, there are opportunities to specialise and become expert in a particular field.
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The satisfactions of medical writing vary according to the work. Regulatory documents are bound by strict guidelines, but most medical writers see this as a positive challenge. It takes considerable skill to produce a document that aids the approval process and lessens the time it takes to bring a new drug onto the market. Given the enormous costs involved in researching and developing new medicines, you will certainly be valued by your company if you help them recoup their investment early.
Helping patients gain access to medicines that will improve their lives is also something in which you'll take pride. Giving clear and accurate information to doctors, nurses and patients helps ensure the best drugs are prescribed and taken correctly. And effectively written sales and marketing material can raise public awareness of important health issues as well as increase sales and market share.
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There isn't an established route into medical writing. Most writers seem to come into it from other relevant roles, like research. At the very least, you must have a strong interest in science and a basic knowledge of human biology. This is essential to understand what you're writing about and ensure it's accurate. It also explains why most medical writers have a life science (biology, biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology, physiology or zoology) degree and some a PhD.
Your scientific knowledge must be complemented by the ability to master complex ideas and translate them into the right language for your audience. For example, the words used in a document aimed at scientific experts should, obviously, differ from those in a leaflet enclosed with a packet of tablets sold to the general public.
You need to be good at listening as well as writing, because you'll be gathering information from a wide range of people - scientists, regulators and sales and marketing professionals - and conveying information back to them too. You also have to be prepared to question and challenge what is said.
In the most prescriptive forms of medical writing a major part of the challenge is to communicate clearly while keeping strictly to the rules. In the more creative forms, your focus will be on grabbing the readers' attention and winning them over with your argument. Accuracy and attention to detail are essential in all cases, along with a good command of English and word processing skills.
Most training for medical writers takes place on-the-job and progress is made by learning from the feedback you're given. The European Medical Writers Association (EMWA) offers a training programme, which is gradually gaining recognition and The Management Forum also offers courses.
As for career paths, you can progress from Medical Writer to Senior Medical Writer to managing your own team to becoming Head of Department. The skills and knowledge medical writing develops can also lead to moves into other areas, such as sales and marketing or regulatory affairs, or the freelance field.
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I started at the company working in technical support – so using my PhD – then moved through a variety of international sales and marketing roles, changing to communications four years ago.