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A look into medical writing

Insights from Ashlea A. Morgan at Chameleon Communications International
Elizabeth Stivison
April 5, 2024

If you’ve ever looked at the websites for companies that provide medical writing and consultancy services, you probably haven’t come away with much useful information about what they really do.

You might find words like “deliverables,” “products” or “clients” without a lot of information about what any of those things mean. What does the company “deliver” and to whom? That’s partially because there is a wide range of things these consultancy and writing companies do.

Ashlea A. Morgan has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, where she studied serotonin circuitry.

There are many types of medical writers at these companies, each with a different focus and audience, such as writing study designs, working on regulatory questions, writing scientific articles for publications, or doing promotional writing, among many other specialties.

This week, I spoke with Ashlea A. Morgan, an associate scientific director at Chameleon Communications International, to get a sense of one type of work a medical writer can do. Chameleon provides communication services for a range of pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Morgan’s work focuses on medical education, which means her writing is promotional in nature, largely aimed at physicians, with the goal of educating them about new drugs so that they accurately understand them as well as the diseases they treat.

“Ultimately it’s to help them prescribe it to the right patient at the right time,” she said.

Accurate information for prescribers

Each physician has a different background, and the drug landscape changes constantly.

Some doctors associated with big academic medical centers have an easier time staying updated on clinical trial data and the newest information about diseases and therapeutic options; they, or their patients, might even have clinical trial involvement. Other physicians might be more isolated, relying mostly on information about drugs and diseases they learned when they were in medical school or their own continuing studies.

“We have to meet physicians where they are,” Morgan said.

Morgan creates slide decks for presentations at meetings. This could be a big national meeting or at a more regional or smaller meeting. And the work is tailored accordingly for the audience.

Drug companies are paying for the writing Morgan does, and they do want doctors to prescribe their drugs after all. But the end goal, Morgan said, is not exactly “sell more drugs.” She said she aims to share accurate, research-based information to help doctors make well-informed decisions.

That’s not just a lofty moral, it is financially beneficial to the drug companies too: If a drug gets prescribed unnecessarily or at the wrong time or to the wrong patient, that can lead to a bad outcome, which in turn is bad for the company. Think about the lawsuits that have come about after opioids were pushed and overprescribed, for example.

In addition, conference organizers often state that the presentations can’t simply advertise a product. They must be truly educational, sharing information about the disease, data-based guidelines for when to use a drug, and balanced safety and efficacy data.

The Food and Drug Administration also has rules about what data must underlie statements of efficacy or safety, so Morgan’s work must be meticulous and accurate.

From bench work to medical writer

Morgan, like most medical writers on her track, earned her Ph.D. in a biomedical field. She studied serotonin circuitry at Columbia University and notes that, while she’s not using the specific knowledge of her field currently, she draws regularly on things she learned during her graduate studies, including how to drill down and become a subject matter expert relatively quickly.

She said another thing that sets apart medical writers with Ph.D.s is the ability to accept criticism, not take it personally and use it to make your work better.

The translatable skills notwithstanding, the world of medical writing is quite different from academia. The biggest difference Morgan noted was the self-driven aspect of academia versus the client-driven aspect of medical writing. “If a client says it has to be done by midnight and it’s 5 p.m., you have to get it done,” she said. And if a project gets canceled, you’re left with more time on your hands.

Since a writer’s time is billable by the hour, periods with less work can be stressful. Morgan says she keeps the projects she works on diversified; that way, if one falls through, she can shift her focus to another. She also keeps good relationships with others in her company to share the workload. “They’ll think of you when they are overwhelmed with work and you are waiting for work, and vice versa,” she said. 

Morgan points out that in academia you’re often the whole team: a liaison, a data analyst, a budget manager, a researcher, a writer. As a medical writer, you work with many other specialists to get the project done, so you can focus on your specific work.

While every Ph.D. student has discussed their work with various audiences by the time they graduate, one difference Morgan has found in how she approaches writing and talking about science in her current job is how much context and big-picture background is needed.

“When you’re talking to your PI, you can immediately talk about the details. But with a client, you have to ease into the details. You have to back into things. Say, ‘OK, this is our overarching idea for this deck’ and explain ‘It’s supposed to do this; these are the targets.’  And then you can talk about the data.”

Is medical writing for you?

One way to think about how good a fit a job might be for you is to look at what is being selected for in the hiring process. Morgan said that during job interviews there’s a practical component that involves scientific writing, which may be writing an abstract, creating slides, finding errors in a document or something similar. If you like that kind of thing and can do it quickly, “then this is the right career for you,” Morgan said.

Other aspects of the job, such as working with clients or budgeting, can be learned on the job, “but if you don’t know how to do a literature search or make a PowerPoint then it’s not the right place for you.”

In addition, collaborating well and keeping a friendly professional environment are essential.

Trying out writing in other ways can help you decide if this might be a career for you. Morgan kept her own science blog and worked as a science writer for the New York Academy of Sciences during her doctoral program.

You might also seek out opportunities to feel out what the commercial side of science is like. Morgan worked at the technology transfer office at Columbia, which helped give her insight into processes other than benchwork.

Highlights

There are a few parts of the job Morgan especially enjoys. At the top of her list is her colleagues, she said. 

She’s also happy to have found her niche in science. She said she had been dreaming of a career in science and medicine since she was a young kid, but she found during grad school that benchwork just wasn’t exactly right for her: The planning of detailed experiments was draining. Now, she likes her position. “I’m definitely still in the science without having to do the benchwork,” she said.

She also likes the puzzle-like aspects of making the right presentation for the right audience with the right information. “There are many ways to tell the story,” Morgan said. Figuring out how to do it accurately in an eye-catching and informative way is a challenge she enjoys.

Not every drug is going to be a life changing drug, but some have real potential to seriously help people. Morgan described the feeling of excitement when you look at the efficacy chart for a drug and realize this is one that could change someone’s life for the better. “When I'm working on a drug where the efficacy is there and the safety is there, it feels good! Like, maybe a physician will prescribe it and it'll help someone, and I can play a part in that.”

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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