If you are considering medical writing as your career option, then there are a few steps you’ll need to take to start out in this fast-growing, exciting, and demanding field. While searching for a suitable medical writing training program, you may find loads of information (safe to say “information overload”) including guidance, tips, dos and don’ts, as well as numerous books, blogs, and articles on medical writing that could leave you more uncertain than when you started. You may also be left with a lot of remaining questions such as where you can get training, what specific skills are required, and whether there is a suitable apprenticeship program for medical writers.
As a budding medical communicator, it’s quite challenging to identify suitable training based on your area of interest and your current writing skills. It is crucial to have the right start to begin your professional journey to becoming a medical writer, and to find an employer or organization that is willing to mentor you as you master the required specific and specialized skills.
What Basic Qualifications and Skills Do I Need?
If you’re interested in doing an apprenticeship and willing to learn from experienced and highly‑skilled medical communicators, then you should first assess whether you have the basic qualifications required in the profession.
You should have a degree (Bachelor’s, Master’s or doctorate) in the life sciences, medicine, pharmacy, journalism, communications, or a similar field. Most importantly, you should have a “flair” for writing and be passionate about transforming often raw and complex scientific content into clear, concise, and structured documents of high-quality.
You’ll require a specialized skill set for writing medical/healthcare documents. A great communicator with an appetite for learning who is adaptable, creative, and eager to hone new technical skills and learn new writing styles can create a niche in the medical writing field. A good place to start regardless of your baseline level of experience is learning the essential skills of medical writing through online/onsite courses and webinars. You may be asked to complete a writing test, provide writing samples, and/or complete an interview for successful recruitment into an apprenticeship program.
What Might a Medical Writing Apprenticeship Entail?
Apprenticeship creates an alternative pathway for new medical writers who lack experience, regardless of whether they have an advanced degree or certificate. In general, organizations offering apprenticeships for medical writers provide mentorship through comprehensive and intensive on-the-job training that is focused on the requirements of medical writing along with developing interpersonal skills, collaboration with internal and/or external colleagues, and mastering competencies through working with various project teams.
Medical writing is a diverse profession, so the training will vary depending on the intended audience and work expectations. An apprenticeship program should aim to instill the basic knowledge and skills required across relevant medical writer roles. For example, a curriculum could cover techniques of scientific communication strategy, scientific document writing/editing and publishing standards, document project management, basic understanding of scientific and biostatistical principles, the company’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) and policies, industry regulations and guidelines, and computer software and systems (eg, MS Word, Endnote, etc.).
Large, well-established companies typically have robust apprenticeship programs in place to train new medical writers. Small companies may not have the resources to offer apprenticeships and may rely on others to provide the necessary training. Organizations such as the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and others offer a wide range of educational opportunities for new and aspiring medical writers. In fact, an educational session on apprenticeships will be presented at the AMWA 2019 Medical Writing & Communication Conference this fall in San Diego, CA.
Medical writers who wish to specialize in regulatory or publication writing require additional training on regulatory guidelines. This may include learning about
- The International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH) E3 document for writing clinical study reports and E6 document on good clinical practice
- CDISC Clinical Data Acquisition Standards Harmonization (CDASH) standards
- Clinical reporting standards (eg, CONSORT, EQUATOR)
- The publication coordination process
- Publication planning software
- Publication guidelines (eg, International Society for Medical Publication Professionals [ISMPP], Good Publication Practices 3 [GPP3], and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors [ICMJE])
How Do I Find a Medical Writing Apprenticeship?
Seeking out a medical writing apprenticeship is an excellent choice if you want to get hands-on professional training in medical writing. You can use search engines or social media platforms to explore advertised job vacancies for trainee medical writers. Medical communication agencies, pharmaceutical/biotech companies, and clinical/contract research organizations (CROs) are a few of the types of organizations that can offer on-the-job training. Organizations offering short-term apprenticeships in scientific and medical writing include Science News, Yale Medical School, European Southern Observatory, AbbVie, Tempus Inc, LexisNexis, Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, and McCann Health Medical Communications.
What Can I Expect to Learn During an Apprenticeship?
Apprenticeship offers a hands-on learning opportunity to acquire medical writing skills. The training content varies depending on the company’s requirements, but typically it will involve the following:
- Creating structured, well-formatted, accurate, and high-quality scientific documents from available unstructured content, either using a document template or standard guidelines such as ICH guidelines or the company’s guidelines/SOPs. Content can be communicated to target audiences through various media, including slide decks, posters, manuscripts, regulatory documents, and more.
- Editing documents; correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar to maintain consistency and ensure clarity, accuracy, and uniformity; and removing redundant or unnecessary information.
- Understanding medical terminology (always good as a refresher, but especially helpful if you do not have a medical/science background).
- Using authoring tools, software, and templates to create documents. You should be tech-savvy and flexible about learning new software. Examples include
- Microsoft Office, particularly Microsoft Word with add-ins, or Office 365
- Adobe Acrobat standard
- Online software such as PerfectIt and Grammarly
- Endnote or RefMan for citation and reference management
- Using document management systems and storage tools, such as
- Dropbox, OneDrive via Office 365, Egnyte, SharePoint, and Google Drive for data sharing
- Cloud, and Livelink for data storage
- Using Web conferencing tools such as Webex, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting, Zoho Meeting, and Skype for Business
You will need to be adaptable to different writing styles for different target audiences such as healthcare professionals, patients, and local/international regulatory agencies. You should determine your area of expertise in writing documents and then refine your skills through an apprenticeship to improve your efficiency in writing those documents. For example,
- If you’re interested in writing manuscripts for publication in medical journals, you need to know and understand good publication practices and guidelines and be able to find and follow the editorial guidelines of the target journal.
- If you’re interested in writing for medical communication agencies, you need to learn how to write content for the materials they produce, such as brochures, posters, and slide decks.
There’s an increasing demand for medical writers in all areas, especially in drug development with pharmaceutical companies and writing reports and regulatory submission documents with CROs.
Undertaking a medical writing apprenticeship provides an excellent opportunity to help you build a strong foundation for a career in the field. It provides formal, structured, and rigorous hands-on training on medical writing tools, techniques, and standards. It will also teach you project management and soft skills, which are equally essential. I urge you to start exploring an apprenticeship opportunity in medical writing – I’m confident it will not only help you excel in the beginning of your medical writing career, but also provide for your long-term success.