Right and Wrong: Medical Communication Ethics

Right-and-Wrong--Medical-Communication-EthicsEthical behavior is important in any profession. 

However, in medical communication, adhering to a code of ethics is critical because health, lives, and reputations are at stake.

Why are ethics important? What are the ethical guidelines that apply to medical communicators? 

Where do you turn for answers on ethical dilemmas specific to medical writing and medical editing?

The Importance of Ethics

“Ethical behavior is determined by norms, principles, guidelines, and policies. If ethics does not regulate behavior, then we are forced to rely on public laws.” 

—Cindy Hamilton, author of Essential Ethics for Medical Communicators

A code of ethics is a set of principles or values enshrined in a set of standards to guide professional behavior and conduct.

Medical communicators adhere to a specific set of ethical principles that are designed to lead to the accurate and balanced presentation of scientific and medical information. In general, medical communicators should 

  • Observe statutes and guidance from regulatory authorities
  • Apply objectivity and fair balance
  • Meet the highest professional standards
  • Refuse unethical practices
  • Expand knowledge and skills
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Honor agreements
  • Act professionally

It is important to note that not acting on principles when you notice ethical lapses or breaches can have severe consequences. This type of inaction can damage reputations, harm stakeholders, and endanger careers.

The AMWA Code of Ethics

The AMWA Code of Ethics is a brief yet comprehensive set of principles created to provide guidance for medical communicators. The goal is for everyone working in the field to have a shared understanding of right and wrong. 

The Preamble to the AMWA Code of Ethics reads:

“AMWA is an educational organization that promotes excellence in medical communication and recommends principles of conduct for its members. These principles take into account the important role of medical communicators in writing, editing, and developing materials in various media and the potential for the products of their efforts to inform, educate, and influence audiences. To uphold the dignity and honor of their profession and of AMWA, medical communicators should accept these ethical principles and engage only in activities that bring credit to their profession, to AMWA, and to themselves.”

8 Principles of Ethics for Medical Communicators

The Code includes 8 principles that medical communicators can use to guide professional conduct. Those principles include the following:

  1. Observing statutes and regulations. Any materials medical communicators write, edit, or develop should adhere to pertinent statutes and regulations.
  2. Applying objectivity, scientific accuracy, rigor, and fair balance. Medical communicators should strive for these standards in every form of media they create.
  3. Meeting professional standards. Medical writers and editors should strive for the highest standards, regardless of whether the materials are formally regulated. 
  4. Refusing questionable or unethical assignments. Professional medical communicators need to draw a firm line that allows for proper applications of their judgment and skills.
  5. Expanding knowledge and skills. Medical communicators should continually broaden their professional knowledge and communication skills. They should seek out experts, specialists, and educational opportunities to enrich their understanding of subject matters.
  6. Respecting confidentiality. Medical communicators should not violate the confidentiality of clients or disclose any patent, proprietary, patient, or otherwise confidential information.
  7. Acknowledging agreements. Medical communicators should expect fair compensation for their work and honor the terms of agreements and contracts.
  8. Honoring AMWA membership. As members of a respected professional organization, the behavior of AMWA members reflects upon the entire professional community.

A 5-Step Model for Making Ethical Decisions

In an ethics-themed issue of AMWA Journal, Cindy Hamilton, PharmD, ELS, presented a model for addressing ethical questions developed by AMWA workshop leaders. It is called the RIGHT model. The steps identified are as follows

  1. Recognize the ethical situation.
  2. Investigate the facts and assumptions (including the applicable sections of the AMWA Code of Ethics).
  3. Gauge the situation and decide.
  4. Handle the situation and implement the decision.
  5. Tailor the decision (evaluate and decide). 

Because of the continual evolution of science and medicine, using a model like this can help take into account the dynamics of a particular ethical question.

A Community Response

When medical communicators have questions about ethics, some of the most relevant resources are those created and utilized by seasoned professionals working in the same field. The AMWA Code of Ethics, discussed above, includes a set of principles that writers, editors, and other communicators can consult for guidance.

When it comes to specific situations, many medical communicators turn to networks of peers and professional colleagues such as the AMWA Engage forum. Freelance and in-house medical communicators use this platform to discuss issues they encounter in their day-to-day work: Are clients not following good publication practices, cherry picking data, or recycling content without proper attribution? Before addressing these issues with clients, it is helpful to run them past trusted colleagues and peers.

When we have a shared language of medical communication ethics, thorny decision making becomes more straightforward.

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June 20, 2022 at 9:00 AM

American Medical Writers Association

AMWA is the leading resource for medical communicators. The AMWA Blog is developed in partnership with community members who work every day to create clear communications that lead to better health and well-being.