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Medical writing: summarising complex data and translating jargon

Kathryn White

Cathean Ltd

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I’ve been a medical writer for the past eight years. Prior to this, I wrote clinical trial documents in my role as a clinical research associate. I love the variety of work medical writing offers, and the varied audiences you can write for. Here I share some insights into this world of writing, and how it offers opportunities for copywriters.

So, what does a medical writer do?

StethoscopeI think medical writing can be a confusing term. Often, when I state I’m a medical writer, people assume I am a doctor’s secretary producing patient letters. No!

Medical writers create a diverse range of documents and online content essential for supporting the development, approval and marketing of medicines and medical devices.

There are two main types of medical writing: regulatory writing and medical communications.

Regulatory writing

Regulatory writing involves producing clinical trial and regulatory submission documents. Clinical trial documents are generally reviewed and approved by regulatory authorities and ethics committees. Submission documents contain all the data generated from clinical trials and ‘real-life use’ of a medicine. These documents summarise data required by regulators. Approval of such documents allows a new medicine (or new indication/formulation for an established medicine) to be marketed.

Regulatory documents tend to be data driven. Data is generally presented in a pre-determined structured format, as required by the regulatory authorities. You will be asked to summarise and critique large quantities of data, often from many different sources. Document templates are often provided. The readers are physicians and regulators. You could say that the audience for these documents is ‘captive’, because the documents have to be read and approved.

Medical communications

Medical communications (also known as med comms, healthcare communications or healthcare copywriting) pretty much encompasses everything else and incorporates elements of copywriting. It includes the preparation of journal articles, conference abstracts and posters, conference/meeting reports, product monographs, marketing materials, educational and training materials, press releases and company newsletters.

Medical communications tend to aimed at physicians or consumers, although some may need to be approved by the authorities before being published. Documents need to appeal to the reader, which means the writer may have more creative freedom to make sure the information is written and laid out in a way that’s easy to understand.

Where do medical writers work?

Hospital waiting roomMedical writers are employed by pharmaceutical, healthcare and biotech companies, universities, clinical research organisations (CROs), medical communications or regulatory agencies, and healthcare charities.

Medical writing offers excellent opportunities for freelancers too.

Medical writers work across a wide range of therapeutic and diagnostic areas, including:

  • prescription medicines for conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and respiratory diseases, including asthma and hayfever
  • diagnostic and imaging agents such as those used for nuclear medicine, MRI and ultrasound scans
  • medical devices ranging from surgical instruments to wheelchairs, sutures to pacemakers
  • consumer healthcare products, including toothpaste, dietary supplements and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments
  • veterinary products.

Different regulations and ethical principles apply to each area, with some more stringently regulated than others.

Who do medical writers work with?

In regulatory writing, medical writers work with physicians and their teams based in hospitals or specialist clinical trial units, and with clinical and regulatory colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry. We also write documents for patients. For example, patient information leaflets and ‘informed consent’ forms must be generated for each clinical trial and have to be read, understood and signed by every patient before they participate in the trial.

In medical communications, writers often work with colleagues from marketing and medical affairs as well as physicians and other healthcare professionals. You may generate content that’s read by physicians who are leaders in their field of medicine – known as key opinion leaders.

You may be asked to create training materials, which might be used by sales personnel, or educational material, such as copy for a patient information website. Meeting or conference reports are also part of our remit. These might be made publicly available or might be confidential, to be read by pharmaceutical company personnel and collaborating healthcare professionals.

Essential knowledge for medical copywriting

A medical writer needs to have a flair for writing and an interest in medicine and science. Most medical writers have a life science qualification, although I have a chemistry background and there are a few linguists among us. Overall, attention to detail, structure and flow is essential, alongside knowledge of the relevant regulations and ethical standards. Writers may also get involved in creating communication and publication strategies.

A recent change in regulations means there is a greater need for clinical trial data to be generated for children, to improve safety and effectiveness in patients aged up to 18 years. Writing documents to support clinical trials among children is a niche area that requires excellent communication skills. It’s very useful to have a good knowledge of how clinical trials work and how medicines are developed – and this knowledge becomes essential if you want o get involved in regulatory writing.

Avoiding medical jargon or ‘pharmaspeak’

Medical equipmentWriters must be able to grasp the terminology used across different therapeutic areas and translate complex data into a clear, concise and understandable format.

There’s a lot of jargon and abbreviations in the pharmaceutical world, so another challenge is to minimise the amount of scientific gobbledygook used when writing materials for, say, consumers.

Technical terms are ok to use if your audience understands them but avoiding medical jargon will add clarity to your communication – especially when writing for a non-pharma audience.

Use of plain English

Using plain English is particularly important when writing information for patients. The general rule for writing for patients is to target a reading age of 10-12 years. However, it is a fine balance to ensure you translate the medical terms sufficiently and accurately without being either condescending or too vague.

Some examples of how plain English makes medical information easier to understand:

‘Incidence of mortality was lower’ becomes ‘Fewer people died’.

‘This drug represents the only treatment modality to have demonstrated consistent efficacy’ becomes ‘This medicine is the only treatment that consistently works well’.

The Plain Language Thesaurus for Health Communications (PDF) from the US National Center for Health Marketing is a useful resourse. And take a look at the MacMillan website for a great example of how to get medical information, in this case about cancer, across to patients.

Why consider medical writing?

Despite the potentially dry subject material, I love learning about a new medicine or an unfamiliar disease area and translating the data into understandable text. The additional complexity is awareness of, and compliance with, any relevant regulations and guidelines. You usually work alongside a physician or professional in a particular therapeutic field or for a specific medicine, so I believe the primary role of the medical writer is to be the communicator rather than the medical expert.

Medical researchMed comms allows for more creativity than regulatory writing. However, you still need to be able to read and interpret published and new scientific data, and follow ethical principles and publication standards.

I think med comms offers a writer more opportunities to use persuasive writing, particularly if you’re producing marketing materials or advertorials.

Even when writing articles for scientific journals, you need to put the information across in a way that’s compelling – after all, journals rely on subscriptions to exist. The text should be concise and accurate to get the key results or messages across. But it’s not just about text. You can present numerical data in other ways such as tables, colourful graphics or photos that tell a story.

Other areas that offer the chance to offer more creative flexibility include writing websites for new medicines, and my personal favourite, writing corporate newsletters.

Still interested?

Expanding medical services and the call for greater transparency with respect to clinical data mean medical writers are in demand. If you love words, have a curiosity about science, and want to indirectly help patients, then medical writing may be your prescription to success!

Here are some websites to explore if you’re interested in finding out more about medical writing:

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