Those in the medical writing and editing field know that job responsibilities vary widely.
Regardless of the job description, medical communicators have unique scientific and professional skill sets that can be used in a multitude of ways. However, medical communicators sometimes find themselves in situations where they are expected to do more than is possible. Perhaps a colleague or client expects a level of support that is beyond the scope of the medical writer’s job description.
As dedicated team members, medical communicators might feel conflicted in these situations. Most professionals prefer to avoid conflict, but certain situations may require conversations to clarify roles and responsibilities.
When faced with tasks that do not align with the integral role of a professional medical communicator, it is important to know what to do. These five steps will help you in defining your role as a medical writer.
Doing so can help you navigate these difficult situations with professionalism and in partnership with the team.
1. Define the role.
Set the tone early. If you are a freelancer, define your roles and responsibilities in a contract. If you are an employee, you likely have a job description. During interviews for positions or with clients, ask questions to ensure that the job description clearly identifies what the tasks and responsibilities are for the job or project. The sooner you and your client or manager are aligned in understanding your role, the better the relationship (and often the work product) will be.
2. Provide clarity and mutual respect.
Many profiles and signature lines provide opportunities to clarify your education, credentials, and how you would like to be addressed. Be sure to keep these up to date. In addition, use those same tools to address others. Always err on the side of caution. If you are unsure of someone’s title, use Dr. before Mr. or Ms.
Addressing professional colleagues (and humans in general) with respect opens doors to communication and improves most interactions. While you do not have control over the actions (or reactions) of others, you can set your own tone and expectations.
3. Assume ignorance.
Assume ignorance before maliciousness. When confronted with a situation where you feel disrespected, the adage of taking a deep breath before responding holds true. Often people are busy or unaware, so they may type a request before thinking. If you have already had a clear discussion (or discussions) regarding tasks, and you are asked to do something that is someone else’s responsibility, do your best to take a moment before responding. In a world of unconscious bias, many folks may not even know they have committed an offense. Mistakes happen. People are busy. Pressure can be high.
4. Respond, don’t ignore.
For those who are conflict averse, the simple task of correcting or addressing a problem can be difficult. However, it is important to acknowledge and not ignore the situation. Simply deleting the email or ignoring the issue will only lead to (often larger) conflict at a later time. Without question, there may be times where the best action is to take a deep breath and move on. However, if the situation escalates, how do we resolve the conflict? Finding professional responses to clarify the role is vital. There are many ways to respond gently and professionally.
One “go-to” response to have available is. “I really would like to [insert the request here]; however, with the time I have available, I know you want me to complete the [insert your task/responsibility]. Who else might be available?” This reminds the requester of roles and responsibilities.
5. Be as consistent as possible.
When a project is falling behind or a situation requires organization or clarity, it is difficult to avoid stepping in to fix it. However, if another person on the team holds the responsibility of addressing this issue, try not to jump in unless it is necessary. Helpfulness or ability can be misunderstood as willingness to regularly take on tasks that are not your responsibility. Aim to set boundaries for yourself and for each situation. And once boundaries are set, be consistent.
There may be times when a professional medical communicator is expected to take on some administrative activities. You might be asked to organize a meeting of stakeholders, type up a summary of a meeting or project, or send out a draft or final manuscript to obtain feedback or approvals. These tasks may be completely appropriate as part of project management—or when you are working with a small team. The specific tasks are less important than the team's shared understanding of the role of a professional communicator.
A Growing Field
As the medical communication field continues to grow and evolve, the role of professionals in the field may change as well.
No matter what type of medical communication we are involved in, we share an important responsibility to educate our co-workers, clients, and even our bosses on the unique value of medical communicators.