Your top questions about medical writing.
By Alex Evans, PharmD, MBA
I am a community pharmacist by trade and fell into medical writing somewhat by chance. To be honest, I was completely happy working in community pharmacy and never even knew medical writing existed for at least the first 4-5 years of my career. I wrote a couple of articles for peer-reviewed journals, but since they don’t pay anything, I assumed there wasn’t any money in it.
I managed the Safeway in Kihei, HI for about two years, which is a beach town on Maui where there are probably more tourists than residents at any given time. Even many of the residents live there only part of the year and as a result most of the time my job felt like crisis management: “I left my warfarin at home, I live in New York, and it’s 10PM there now,” “I dropped a pill down the sink and now I’m out,” “I’m from Canada and forgot to bring my inhaler,” etc.
I finally decided to write Drug Topics and pitch a piece for their magazine giving pharmacists tips to help their patients prepare for vacation. Because I wasn’t expecting to get paid for it, I was shocked when they offered me $350. I quickly realized I was on to something. In July 2019, I went part-time as a pharmacist and haven’t looked back since.
In addition to a much better lifestyle than community pharmacy offers me, I feel like I diversified just in time. It’s no secret that with mail order pharmacy, financial pressure from PBMs, a drastic increase in the number of pharmacy schools, and other factors that working conditions, salaries, and demand for community pharmacists are all deteriorating rapidly. My dad is a retired family practice doctor, and I’m fortunate to work with great doctors, so I have at least an appreciation for the pressure medicine faces now as well.
In this post, I wanted to answer some of the most common questions that I get asked from folks I meet interested in medical writing:
What is a typical day like for a medical writer?
This is one of my favorite parts of the job. Because writing is project-based work, and not shift-based work, you can do it anytime you want. This means I can have a date with my wife on a weekday (when I would have previously been at work), I can take my son to preschool in the morning, or I can go biking in the middle of the day if I want. If I want money to buy something nice, I can pick up more work; if I want more time, I can decide not to take as much work.
What type of work is available?
Medical writing encompasses a wide variety of jobs, and I’ve seen too many people get caught up trying to define medical writing, which will only hold you back. In my opinion, if I’m getting paid well to write then it doesn’t matter what you call it.
I’ve written about diving in Hawaii for a healthcare staffing firm, for example, and guess what? Their money spent just as well as anyone else’s. Blogs, trade journals, and continuing education are all great places to get started. Any and every website that has articles is a possible client, so the key is finding where you fit in best.
Are there any downsides?
Medical writing is a sweet gig, but there are downsides. Here are my top two:
Requires excellent time management: To make significant money as a freelancer, you’re likely going to need to juggle multiple clients, each with their own projects and deadlines. Missing deadlines is a surefire way to lose work, so you must have a system in place to manage your work (and emails).
Vacations are hard to schedule: You might want to take a vacation during your child’s school break, for example, but it overlaps with a writing deadline. When this happens, you could be stuck working a lot of hours the week before or writing to some extent on your vacation. It can be difficult as a freelancer to take a full week off without any writing needing to be done.
How can I get started in medical writing?
If I had to give just one piece of advice, it would be this: when pitching to clients, focus on your clinical background and experience.
There might be other experienced writers out there, but magazines and websites focused on clinical practice (or even consumer health) want clinicians, not researchers, to write their articles. They need relevant, well-written, and concise articles on the biggest topics in the field, and that comes best from those who work in that field.
If I were a dermatologist, for example, I might target Dermatology Times, Medscape Dermatology, The Dermatologist, and Dermatology World. I might also target cosmetic blogs; Clinique, for example, has a skin care blog and clearly has dermatologists contributing regularly to it.
Partially out of my frustration at the lack of resources to allow excellent clinicians to break into medical writing and get paid to share their knowledge with the healthcare community, I also created a course called Medical Writing for Healthcare Professionals.
About the author: Alex is a pharmacist and medical writer in Jacksonville, FL. He is also an Assistant Dive Instructor and lived in Hawaii for five years, barely getting dry before his next shift at the pharmacy.
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