Medical Writing for Social Science and Humanities Grads

For the past six years, I’ve worked with health care professionals and administrators to develop documents. These documents help create new care systems or implement changes to an existing system of care. As a social scientist who studied health and medicine from a distance, it’s been rewarding to work alongside providers and to help improve how health care is done.

I contribute by writing. “Writing” is a shorthand for a multitude of different things I do. The document is often the end product of a longer process through which we (myself, my clients, and relevant stakeholders) arrive at the content.

What is medical writing?

Simply put, medical writing is writing that has to do with medical and health topics. It’s a subset of technical writing. Often medical writing is talked about in the context of medical journalism (i.e. reporting to the general audience about advancements or issues in a medical field) or clinical research (e.g. developing research protocols for clinical trials).

My focus is more on health care delivery and systems, as well as social and policy implications of medical conditions and health concerns, such as HIV/AIDS, substance use and addictions, and a patient’s journey through the medical system after a major physical injury.

Medical writing is diverse and varied. Rather than being a field, it’s more of a technique that can be applied across medical and health fields.

You don’t need a science or medical degree to be a medical writer.

I have a PhD in Sociology. My area of focus was medical sociology, and while this means that I am familiar with some concepts in health care and even some medical conditions, I’m by no means an expert in these areas.

Over the years, I’ve learned the language and concepts in various health conditions and issues to be able to write and edit content and to advise clients on content decisions related to specific topics. But I defer to my clients and project stakeholders to ensure that the content is accurate.

Medical writers can fill important gaps in health care.

A good medical writer helps to fill two important gaps in health care:

  • Health care professionals and administrators often don’t have time to sit down and write. They are busy attending to patients and maintaining complex health care systems. A medical writer supports these folks by producing content that reflects their goals, purpose, and approach. At its best, medical writing is a collaboration with content experts and stakeholders.
  • Health care professionals and administrators are experts in what they do but they may not always communicate effectively what they know to others. A medical writer understands the importance of social and communication theories (e.g. audience-text-context, genre, cognition, behaviour, rapport) and is able to apply them to content creation.

Medical writing can be many different things.

Medical writing is a catch-all term for a range of different types of writing and content development. It can be related to bench science or clinical practice, or more social or systems-related, and it’s particularly in the latter area that social science and humanities grads can make a big impact.

A medical writer may write grant applications, academic publications, ethics applications, policy briefs and recommendations, news in newspaper or medical publications, and so on and so on. A medical writer may work for organizations within a public health care system or in the private sector for pharmaceutical or biotech companies and journalistic publications.

Medical writing can support other kinds of work.

A medical writer can be more of an editor with some content expertise in a particular health/medical field. But there’s a lot more that a medical writer can do in conjunction with writing.

Medical writing can be combined with other types of services, such as qualitative research, literature synthesis/appraisal, project management, statistical analysis, strategic planning, strategic communication, policy, and education, to name just a few. It can involve working with clinicians, service workers, community/patient advocacy groups, administrators, policy makers or a combination of these folks. Because medical writing is a technique, it can take place in the context of or alongside these other services.

The role of social science and humanities grads

The primary function of a medical writer is to write. As a social science and humanities grad, you have received rigorous training in writing. You might need to adjust your writing style to a new audience, but you can already structure an argument and convey complex ideas into words.

Presenting at conferences, writing academic papers, and undergraduate teaching have given you experience and expertise in knowledge translation. As a medical writer, you’d be helping others translate their content to their desired audience.

You’ll use your training in observational/ethnographic research, content analysis, and other research methodologies to learn about a new health/medical field and health care systems, understand the politics and relationships between key stakeholders, and identify problems and challenges. All of these will help you create good content.

Getting started

There are many ways to start building a medical writing portfolio. The most important thing is to gain the trust of health care professionals/administrators that you have something valuable to offer. I think a good place to start is by offering editing and/or grant writing services, i.e. offering to do something people dislike doing or don’t have time to do but must do.

In terms of finding your first work, I suggest reaching out to any connection you already have in health care. Maybe you have a sibling who is a health care or service professional, or you work with nursing students at a university in your day job, or you have a friend who works at a non-profit that supports youth with disabilities. Let people know that you’re offering editing and grant writing services. Even if you don’t know anyone who works in health care, send out an email to your friends, family, and acquaintances about what you’re offering. You never know who’s in their network.

Do you think medical writing is for you?

Over the next several posts, I will discuss the above points in more detail. Social science and humanities grads have a lot to offer the health and medical world. Medical writing on its own or in combination with other services is a great way to apply our training and contribute to meaningful work, with lots of room to grow as a professional.

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