Editor’s note: If you’ve read much here on Look for Zebras, you may have gathered that I think medical writing is one of the neatest, most versatile types of nonclinical work for physicians – both as a freelancer and as a full-time writer. Today we get to hear from a true pro on answers to the most common questions she gets from doctors interested in medical writing.
About the author:
Mandy Armitage, MD is a board-certified physician with several years of medical communications and health tech start-up experience. She enjoys coaching physicians who are interested in transitioning into medical writing. To learn more, please visit her website.
Physician readers of this blog know that interest in non-clinical careers and side gigs is at an all-time high. As someone who left clinical practice years ago to pursue medical communications, I’m frequently asked about how to get into medical writing. (You can read more about my transition out of medicine here.) When I consult with physicians who want to start writing, these are the most common questions I answer.
How Do I Get Started?
In my opinion, the first step is to think about what kind of writing you want to do. This isn’t a necessary step by any means, but it can certainly streamline your process. Some folks stumble on this, as they might not realize how broad medical writing is. There are several options, and it helps to know what those options are before deciding where to start. Here are a few examples of types of medical writing, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:
- Regulatory writing (e.g., clinical trial documents, new drug applications)
- Medical communications (e.g., slide decks for advisory boards)
- Health journalism (e.g., reporting on health- or healthcare-related news)
- Continuing education for healthcare professionals
- Patient education
- Marketing for associations or health systems
The most important thing to notice here is that the intended audience is variable. If you’re not sure which type of writing you want to pursue initially, you can at least narrow it down to physician versus lay audience. In other words, do you want to write at a high level for other clinicians? Or do you enjoy breaking down complex medical content for the lay public? Again, you don’t necessarily have to choose, and you can always change your mind later, but I find that asking these questions early on can help dictate your next steps. Once you’ve identified the type of writing that best suits you, you can then pursue training and/or start to identify potential sources of work.
It’s worth mentioning here that sometimes people just don’t know where to start. And that’s OK – just start writing! I often encourage people to start a blog, or simply start a collection of Word documents with whatever comes to you. You may find yourself venting about policy, explaining procedures or diagnoses for patients, or noodling on the most recent practice guideline updates. Just start writing and see where it takes you.
Do I Need Any Training?
I know a handful of folks who have been successful in medical writing without taking any courses, but these days, that’s harder to do. I usually recommend some kind of course or training for physicians who don’t have much writing experience. There are multiple reasons for this.
First, it’s a great way to determine which type of writing you want to pursue if you’re unsure. It’s also a great way to brush up on your skills if you haven’t written in a while, or build a portfolio of work if you don’t have any writing samples to share with potential clients. If you don’t have significant writing experience or a portfolio of work to share, it is helpful to have some sort of certificate or course experience. Clients are becoming hip to the fact that although physicians are subject matter experts, they are not necessarily good writers.
Commonly, physicians don’t think they need writing training because they’ve published several journal articles. But journal articles aren’t independent projects – there are multiple people involved in the process, including editors. So even if you enjoy writing and/or have the experience, ask yourself: “Have I ever submitted a project or paper that didn’t go through copyeditor at least proofing by another party? Can my work stand alone and be accepted as-is?” If the answer is no, it might be time for a course or two.
How Much Can I Expect to Make?
This is the biggest question on everyone’s minds, right? Most of us (if not all) have loans and other obligations, so compensation is understandably an important consideration. If you’ve been in practice for any amount of time, you are likely accustomed to a certain income. Unfortunately, this is where some people get discouraged and sometimes disappointed. Medical writing is engaging and flexible, but I’d be lying if I told you it is as lucrative as clinical practice. I encourage physicians to have reasonable expectations and an open mind when pursuing this path. Unless you consider big book royalties or other supplements, a medical writing income is not going to replace most full-time clinical incomes, especially those of highly-trained specialties.
Compensation for medical writing varies based on the type of writing. For example, regulatory writing tends to pay better than health journalism or other types of patient education. Healthcare journalism (for lay audiences) tends to pay the least, but there are exceptions. A good source of information on this is the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), which surveys its members regarding compensation every 3-5 years. This can give you some insight into hourly rates and salaries, keeping in mind that only a small portion of the membership is comprised of physicians. Results from the 2015 survey can be found here, and results from the recently closed 2019 survey are expected later this year. Please remember that your medical writing business is as strong as you make it, so if you’re willing to put in the work of building it, you’ll likely be satisfied with the results.
At the end of the day, medical writing is great for physicians who want flexibility, stimulation, and a low-stress lifestyle. I always say ‘I love medicine, I just don’t love the practice of it.’ Medical writing has helped me stay connected to the content but without the other headaches. As long as you have reasonable expectations for the compensation and motivation to build a client base, there’s no reason you can’t be successful. Just start writing!