Annina DeLeo: The Field of Medical Communication

Current position: Postdoctoral fellow in Alzheimer’s disease, Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics Department
Program start date: March 2016
Institution: Boston University School of Medicine

One of the job opportunities away from the bench that is most interesting to me is medical communication. I first learned of this career when one of my good friends from graduate school took a position as a medical writer. Since then, I have conducted several informational interviews, and want to share what I’ve learned.

Medical communication is a fast-growing and broad field with many niches that Ph.D.s are especially suited for due to their research background. These positions may be particularly appropriate for those of us from medical and pharmaceutical fields, as it draws upon our previous experience. Overall, the field requires effective communication of scientific ideas to a variety of audiences; specialists such as doctors and scientists, as well as lay audiences such as patients and regulatory bodies

Broadly speaking, medical communication can be broken down into three categories: commercially oriented writing, regulatory or legal writing, and publication preparation and education. Within each of these sub-fields, writers may work for themselves, a pharmaceutical/biotech company, or be employed by a communications firm that has pharmaceuticals, biotechs, and academic institutions as clients.

Commercial communications involve writing pamphlets and informational brochures for doctors and patients about medical products. These writers may also be involved in the marketing of medical products, writing website copy, and generating claim sheets. In all types of medical writing, there are standards and regulations that need to be followed. In the US, commercial writing must comply with the FDA label guidelines—e.g. be accurate, and enable safe and effective product use.

Regulatory writers create documents required by the FDA for bringing a new drug or medical device to market. Therefore, regulatory writers must also be familiar with the policies set out by the FDA, as well as the guidelines of the International Conference on Harmonisation. Regulatory writers generally work on Investigational New Drug applications, protocols for drug and device clinical studies, study reports, and Investigator’s Brochures, which provide key information to facilitate future clinical trial management. While some might view such work as dry and tedious, many in this field find that there is creativity in determining how to address the needs of the company within the given restraints.

Finally, medical writers work on material for scientific publication or education, including slide decks, posters, and manuscripts. Often this type of work is organized around clinical trial schedules. A big part of this job is reviewing and summarizing the scientific literature to inform doctors of relevant and novel therapeutics. In developing this type of content, any claims, interpretations, or discoveries will need to be well supported. This requires writers to extensively document and organize relevant findings. In addition to literature review, the client will have data they have generated. In this case, the writers will revise and modify figures to better support the overall narrative. Therefore, experience in the sciences can be invaluable. Often, medical writers will attend conferences to better understand their field as a whole, become familiar with new ideas, and to make connections with experts in the field (sometimes known as key opinion leaders).

There are other types of scientific writing as well, which aren’t necessarily medical in nature. One example is technical writing for new scientific products. In this case, the writer creates a protocol or technical note about a new product. Within a company, there is also educational writing that informs different departments, such as sales, about new products the company has developed. However, this activity might also be performed verbally. For those with a combination of scientific know-how and a gift for communicating, there are many opportunities to explore.

Generally, all medical writers function within a standard operating procedure (like a protocol in lab) to ensure that a consistent, quality product is delivered in a timely manner. Unlike much of the bench work, where independence is cultivated and highly valued, medical writers are a part of a larger team that includes other writers, managers, editors, compliance officers, and sometimes design teams. Despite the regulations and standard procedures, many medical writers profess that they get to be more imaginative in their work than they were at the bench.

Medical communication allows for the engagement of the technical knowledge one has accrued while obtaining a Ph.D., but also gives enhanced opportunities for collaboration and creativity than might not be found in a typical bench job. Unlike being a PI, where one delves very deeply into a single topic, medical writers must keep a balance between depth and breadth of knowledge in order to appropriately understand the topic but also to recognize where the topic fits into the bigger picture.

I find the field of medical communication fascinating because I love communicating scientific ideas, as well as editing and clarifying the work of others. I’m happiest at work when I have results and am able to begin writing manuscripts and grants. Having data brought to me to write up and communicate to others sounds amazing. I am also drawn to the field for the variety of scientific topics to which I would be exposed; this feature speaks to my constant curiosity about other areas of research. In addition, medical writers often work as part of a team. It’s wonderful to be able to bounce ideas off of others, and I would love to do so more than just once a week at lab meeting. Furthermore, I am a big proponent of collaborating; I think things are done more thoroughly and sensibly when more eyes are involved. This is definitely a field I want to explore further!

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