How do medical communicators distill the results of complex studies into just a few hundred words?
Many times, they do it by writing conference or meeting abstracts.
Abstracts are like calling cards. They are essential tools that researchers use to convey the results and implications of scientific studies.
Writing conference or meeting abstracts is a great opportunity for medical communicators to do what they do best: accurately communicate scientific concepts to a targeted audience.
If writing abstracts is on your medical writing to‑do list, we’ve got a few tips to share.
The Purpose of Meeting Abstracts
Meeting abstracts are condensed summaries of research that convey the methods, results, and implications of research studies. They are used to introduce meeting or conference attendees to a research project.
Often, conference organizers use abstracts to decide if a study fits the criteria for a conference. Equally important, audiences often use the abstract to determine whether to attend a particular session.
Meeting abstracts often have strict word limits, offering an opportunity for researchers and medical communicators to share the most essential aspects of the research.
The Structure of a Meeting or Conference Abstract
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a publication called How To Write an Abstract for the 2016 STD Prevention Conference. These experts provide a concise guide to the elements of a meeting abstract.
The title of the abstract needs to be clear and interesting. Readers should want to learn more. Conference attendees often use the title to decide whether or not to watch your presentation or visit your poster.
The CDC provides the following examples of a weak and a strong abstract title.
Weak: Sexual risk among MSM
Strong: Sexual risk among men who have sex with men (MSM) in a national probability sample: Prevalence of risky behaviors and temporal trends, UK2012
The Background section includes 1 to 3 sentences that answer the following questions: Why is your research important? What is the context? For example, what do we already know about the subject, and what new aspect of it are you examining? What are you hoping to discover (or what is your hypothesis)? Note: the level of background detail included in the abstract will depend on the audience.
Here’s an example of a weak and a strong background section from the CDC.
Weak: Research will be presented on MSM to determine if behaviors changed recently while syphilis increased among MSM.
Strong: Research in the UK has found that samples from community venues and clinics overestimated sexual risk among all MSM compared to population‑based samples. There is little data on sexual risk among MSM in the US from population‑based surveys and no data on temporal trends in sexual risk. We examined nationally representative data on MSM to determine if behaviors changed recently while syphilis increased among MSM.
The Methods section includes 3 to 8 sentences that explain what the research was, the population it studies, the research methods (quantitative or qualitative), and the dates and duration of the study.
Here’s the CDC’s example of a strong Methods section.
Methods: A multi‑level intervention was delivered and evaluated across five years (2006‑2011) in a large public school district in Los Angeles, California. One intervention component sought to improve students’ awareness and utilization of condom availability programs (CAPs) in schools by working with key school personnel, particularly nurses, to more effectively implement district CAP policies. Six intervention and six control high schools participated in the study. A total of 15,936 students were eligible for the study. Final analyses included survey data from 13,733 high school males across five years (T1 – T5). A mixed model logistic regression analysis was used to test for an intervention effect on males’ reports of services sought from the school nurse. Random effects on the student level were included to control for repeated measures on the same student.
The Results section is the longest part of the abstract, usually 3 to 8 sentences. It describes the main findings using data, and describes how the results relate to the hypothesis. This section should include only results of the study; it should not speculate about the future.
The following is the CDC’s example of a strong Results section from a qualitative abstract.
Results: Participants were ethnically diverse (65% non‑white) and 85% (n=17) reported UAI with concurrent binge drinking during the past 3 months. Analysis of in‑depth interviews specifically with those engaging in UAI and binge drinking, revealed that men 1) face challenges navigating community normative drinking expectations, such as peer pressure to drink and “hook up” with sexual partners, 2) believe that binge drinking and episodic substance use enhance experiences of disinhibition, euphoria, and spontaneous sexual behavior, and 3) express a desire for intimacy and ability to trust anonymous partners, relying on partner‑focused responsibility (an assumption that partners will disclose if HIV‑positive or use a condom to protect the participant).
The Conclusions section is 2 to 3 sentences long. It describes the main findings and why they are significant.
The following is an example of a strong Conclusions section, according to the CDC.
Conclusions: The Project Connect Health Systems Intervention was successful in linking sexually active adolescents to sexual and reproductive health care. Results were particularly striking for girls. As opposed to attempting to change provider behavior, this approach capitalizes on existing, adolescent‑focused expertise in the local provider community. It is a low‑cost, sustainable strategy for effectively linking adolescents to much needed care.
The 4 Cs of Abstracts
- Complete. It covers the major components of the project, study, or analysis.
- Concise. It only contains necessary information.
- Clear. It is well‑organized, readable, and doesn’t include jargon.
- Cohesive. The sections flow together.
7 Tips for Writing a Winning Abstract
- Plan ahead. You will write a better abstract if you don’t wait until the last minute to prepare it.
- Pay attention to submission instructions. The instructions will be clear on the requirements, including the deadline and word limit.
- Get expert advice. If you’re new to writing abstracts, run it by someone with experience.
- Write in active voice. “We examined….We tested….We found.” Not: “There were… It was…”
- Proofread. Always double-check for spelling and grammar errors. Have someone else look at it, for a fresh set of eyes.
- Stay within the word limit. If the limit is 300 words, don’t push past it.
- Limit and define acronyms. Nothing slows down a reader like excessive use of unfamiliar acronyms. Always define them on the first reference. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A Final Word on Wordiness
Abstracts need to be short and to the point.
In AMWA’s online course, Eliminating Wordiness: How to Effectively Shorten Abstracts and Other Writing, medical communicators learn to reduce clutter by eliminating nonessential information and replacing wordy expressions with succinct phrases. They also learn to prune unnecessary words and phrases, avoid repetition, and employ strong action verbs.
Abstracts Get Attention
A good meeting abstract sparks the curiosity of conference attendees. They might use the abstract to determine whether to attend a presentation or visit a poster detailing the study.
That means more people will learn about the important research the abstract describes.
In the end, a clear and concise abstract is a portal to the science that changes our world.