As a medical writer, chances are high that you’ve crafted a document or two without your byline attached. After all, much of the content medical writers create doesn’t require authorship. If you’re interested in advancing your career and seeing your name in print, consider medical journalism. Nurturing relationships with publications that focus on health and well-being for a public audience is also a smart move for freelance medical writers. Having bylined publications can fortify your position as an expert in medical communication.
What Is Medical Journalism?
Regardless of whether you’re a health communication writer or a medical journalist, your goal should be to clearly and accurately disseminate information about health care and medicine. Medical journalists do this by communicating research, medical news, and scientific breakthroughs to the public. They act as a bridge between medical and science professionals and the general population.
Medical journalists write for a variety of outlets, such as:
- Consumer print publications (eg, Popular Science, Psychology Today, Modern Healthcare, Scientific American)
- Radio and television
3 Tips to Succeed as a Medical Journalist
Brush up on journalism ethics
Medical writers of all kinds have an ethical responsibility to present information as clearly and accurately as possible. The second principle of the AMWA Code of Ethics reads, “Medical communicators should apply objectivity, scientific accuracy and rigor, and fair balance while conveying pertinent information in all media.”
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics reads similarly, instructing journalists to be “accurate and fair” as well as “honest and courageous” in their reporting.
Whether you call yourself a medical journalist, health journalist, or medical science communicator, you should understand and practice ethics set forth by relevant organizations.
Know your audience
Some medical news publications are marketed toward a public audience. Others are read by health care and science professionals. Before you pitch or accept a news brief or feature from an editor at a medical publication, identify the target audience.
A few tips to keep in mind when writing about science news and medical insights for public‑facing publications:
- Avoid medical jargon whenever possible. If you must use a technical term, define it clearly for readers.
- Read entire journal articles and press releases, but don’t feel the need to describe every step of a clinical trial or research process. Distill to the core facts for clarity and digestibility.
- Think like a storyteller. Use anecdotes, case studies, and descriptive quotes from subject matter experts whenever possible.
Like medical writing in general, medical journalism should be balanced and accurate. You’ll need a healthy dose of skepticism to wade through profit‑driven public relations pitches, unfounded hype in press releases, and even biased sources.
Expect to vet sources by checking their credentials and websites for updates. Speak to multiple sources for each article so that you can present a balanced perspective on breaking news. Ask follow‑up questions. Request data to back up sources’ claims.
When you’re a journalist, fact‑checking is par for the course. Approach each story objectively, with a willingness to be skeptical, to avoid regurgitating bad science.
Resources to Help You Grow as a Medical Journalist
- AMWA Resource Library
- Purdue Online Writing Lab
- National Institutes of Health: “Scientists and Journalists: Bridging the Gap”
- The National Institutes of Health: “Clear & Simple”
- Association of Health Care Journalists
- Covering Medical Research. A Guide for Reporting on Studies, by Gary Schwitzer (recipient of the 2014 AMWA McGovern Award)
If you're interested in relaying health and science insights to the general public or you want to see your name in print, journalism could be an exciting, successful career path.