The best freelance medical writing jobs for physicians

Sep 4, 2018

A lot of healthcare professionals want more flexibility and autonomy in their work. Many want an extra source of income. Others are exhausted by clinical work and want different ways to use their medical knowledge. Medical writing is exactly what many of these folks are looking for. But medical writing jobs for physicians come in many flavors. This article aims to sum up what you need to know about finding the best freelance jobs for your skills and interests.

What do freelance medical writers do?

When I tell others that I do work as a medical writer, it’s not uncommon that the response is “What is a medical writer?” It’s a reasonable question, because medical writing is a broad field.

Medical writing:

  • Takes many forms and formats
  • Is used in many industries
  • Requires various types of skills and knowledge
  • Speaks to many audiences
  • Aims to accomplish many different goals

As a physician medical writer, you can do work in pharmaceuticals, medical communications, medical education, test prep, patient education, journalism, and regulatory science, to name a few. Some medical writers work exclusively for themselves, developing and publishing their own materials.

Most physicians who find success in writing as an extra source of income focus on one or a few areas. This allows for a depth of experience that a lot of clients value when choosing a writer. So let’s dive into the main areas in which medical professionals are most likely to find medical writing work – areas that pay fairly, use your hard-earned medical knowledge, and are interesting.

Medical writing types and typical clients

This table summarizes the main types of medical writing that physicians are involved in, and provides examples of freelance clients and deliverables. Each of these areas is discussed in more detail in the sections that follow.

Medical Writing CategoryTypical Clients

Example Work Types

Scientific manuscripts

▪ Researchers

▪ Pharma companies

 

▪ Journal manuscripts

▪ Review articles

Medical communications

▪ Pharma companies

▪ Medical product companies

▪ Sales training materials

▪ Marketing materials

▪ Scientific content

 

CME

▪ CME provider

▪ Pharma companies

▪ CME modules or articles

▪ Assessment questions

Medical journalism

▪ Newspapers or publications

▪ Blogs

▪ Authors or publishers

▪ News articles

▪ Books or book chapters

▪ Blog posts

Test prep

▪ Test prep companies

▪ Societies or medical boards

▪ Exam questions

▪ Exam review materials

Patient information

▪ Healthcare organizations

▪ Nonprofits

▪ Consumer publications

▪ Patient education materials

▪ Articles for a lay audience

The best types of freelance medical writing jobs for physicians

Medical communications

Medical communications (aka medcom) companies specialize in supporting the biotech, pharma, and medical device industries in marketing their products, educating clinicians about their therapeutic space, and disseminating results of their clinical trials. As you can imagine, this can take on many forms, from slide decks, to promotional materials, to internal and external learning resources. It can also include development of journal manuscripts and CME modules, though these are discussed below in their own sections.

In addition to doing the writing itself, medcom organizations normally offer services related to strategic publication planning, stakeholder engagement,  competition and market analysis, and the like. A physician medical writer may or may not be involved in various aspects of these services. If staring at a computer screen and typing for hours sounds less than enjoyable to you, consider taking projects with a medcom company that include some of these broader responsibilities.

Scientific manuscripts

Freelance jobs in scientific research article writing and editing takes two main forms – ghostwriting entire manuscripts and editing manuscript drafts.

Pharmaceutical companies (or the medical communications companies they work with) often hire physicians to write manuscripts based on their data from clinical studies. Being a ghostwriter means that you, as the medical writer, aren’t listed as an author when all is said and done. Instead, the authors are typically the experts that were involved in carrying out the clinical trial or study.

If ghostwriting makes you feel uneasy or you have a keen eye for detail and grammar, medical editing could be right up your alley.

Chances are you’ve been an author on a least a couple of peer-reviewed journal articles. If you’ve spent much time in academia, your list of publications could be quite lengthy. Either way, you’re probably familiar enough with scientific research publications to know the challenges that authors can face, including:

  • Choosing the right journal for submission
  • Writing according to journal guidelines
  • Figuring out how to fit a ton of data and information into a few thousand words
  • Etc

Many authors – especially those whose first language is not English – want the help of a medical writer for their article. This helps to ensure they’ll get the article accepted. Researchers who’ve spent months (or years) working on their research project are often happy to hand over some cash to someone who will help them present their findings in a well-written, succinct article.

CME

We’ve all completed our share of CME. Whether it’s an in-person presentation, an online module, or printed material, a writer is needed to develop this content.

Example of an online CME module

Often, a physician or other professional with a strong knowledge of the topic area is used. CME writing is a great way to share your in-depth knowledge of a specific medical topic or research area.

Closely related to the development of a CME learning activity is the area of needs assessments. These analyses are conducted before CME is developed in order to align the content of CME with the educational needs of the healthcare providers who will be taking the CME. Needs assessments are conducted using surveys, focus groups, expert interviews, study results, and other data. The results are typically presented in the form of a written document that summarizes findings and provides learning objectives for the forthcoming CME.

Test prep

You’ve probably taken the MCAT, all the parts of the USMLE, and at least one board licensing exam. And – if you’re like me – you’ve spent thousands of dollars over the years prepping for these exams. As doctors, we’re standardized test pros. Physicians can use this experience to their advantage to earn money writing materials for test prep and medical education companies.

Example of a medical test prep item

Writing practice test items in the form of multiple choice questions can be appealing to physicians for a couple of reasons:

  • Each question can be treated as a standalone mini-assignment. This allows you do a bit of work whenever you have a short chunk of time available, without worrying about getting into a writing groove or losing focus.
  • Questions are often required to include a patient vignette and clinical data. You can use your own real life experiences as inspiration and to help you craft believable and relevant scenarios.

Writing quality test questions takes some getting used to. Depending on the organization you’re writing for, there are often very specific requirements for question format, types of question stems and distractors that can be used, and referencing needed to support the correct answer.

There are also opportunities to write other types of review materials. This can be summarizing a medical topic into concise paragraphs or bulleted lists, condensing information into tables or figures, and explaining difficult concepts using memorable language or mnemonics.

Other freelance writing work in medical education isn’t directly related to test prep or CME, and can include curriculum development or materials for online courses.

Patient information

If you enjoy educating your patients on their diagnoses or treatments, you might feel at home with medical writing geared toward a patient or lay audience. In this type of work, you’d most commonly write articles for magazines or online publications; but, this would also include writing patient educational handouts that might be used in a healthcare setting or blog posts and web copy used by medical practices to help in marketing their services.

While a medical degree isn’t as valuable for these types of publications as it is for other kinds of medical writing, it tends to be less technical, more conversational, and allow for greater use of creativity. Medical writing for a patient audience can often be done quickly and efficiently by a physician.

A select few organizations that hire freelance medical writers for patient informational publications include healthcare delivery companies, health insurers, health product companies, and non-profits with a health or medical focus.

Medical journalism

Closely related to medical writing for a patient audience is medical journalism. This comprises writing articles for newspapers or magazines, blog posts, or other outlets. Topics can include health policy, medical stories appealing to the masses, hot political health-related issues, and scientific discoveries broadcasted with a journalistic approach.

Physicians can be involved in medical journalism as a credited author as or a ghostwriter, depending on the circumstances. However, high-quality journalism requires a level of passion and most writers appreciate receiving credit for their work and will seek out freelance jobs that allow for this.

Finding your medical writing niche

For physicians just starting to explore the realm of freelance medical writing, how do you know where to start? Certainly if one of the areas discussed above jumps out at you, start there. If you’re not sure what would be a good fit, there’s no harm in trying out a few freelance projects in different industries. As you gain experience, you may find yourself naturally converging on a niche.

It’s ultimately advantageous to have an area or two that you focus on. Writing CME is very different from writing a medical-related news article, which is very different from writing a research manuscript.

That said, though, another way you can approach specialization within medical writing is by therapeutic area, especially if you take jobs for a pharmaceutical or medical communications company. A rheumatologist can easily focus on writing about rheumatology topics for various organizations. And HIV specialist could do the same – and even jump around between industries.

In this sense, choosing a concentration within medical writing is a lot like picking a medical specialty. Some physicians enjoy the breadth of being a generalist, while others appreciate the narrow expertise required for a specialization or sub-specialization.

To learn about how to get started as a freelance medical writer and find your first job, check out our article on how to find freelance writing gigs for physicians.

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