Monday, September 12, 2011

Are We Certifiable?

Certification is a hot topic in all corners of the medical communication field. The concept of certification appeals to us for many reasons: it reflects skills and knowledge; it enhances credibility; it proves value; it may even command higher pay. Medical writers want certification to become a reality, but are we certifiable?

Beyond the personal advantages of certification, an objective measure of proficiency helps define a profession. According to most dictionary definitions, a profession is an occupation or vocation that requires mastery of a complex set of knowledge and skills that are gained through formal education and/or practical experience. Most of us, however, did not have formal education in medical writing, as that curriculum emerged only within the past decade. According to the AMWA 2010 membership survey, only 13% of us had formal education in English—a major you would expect for writers. The most popular formal education is biology/chemistry, with nearly one-third of members having this background. The lack of a universal core educational background leaves our profession to be defined most often by "practical experience."

The core problem is how to convey "mastery." I can say that I've been a medical writer/editor for more than 25 years, but does that necessarily mean I'm good? It would be easier for me to validate my abilities by saying "I'm a certified medical writer" than to rely on the testimonials of employers and clients. In the September Freelance Forum, devoted to the question of the value of certifications, long-time AMWA member Brian Bass notes that certifications "differentiate" medical writers. The ability to differentiate yourself is important in a time of tough competition among writers. A means to differentiate is also essential in a field in which any a person can one day declare "I'm a medical writer" without needing any documentation of formal education or a credential.

With no official credential available to us, some burgeoning medical writers may be tempted by the offerings of training companies that invite people to become "certified" in medical writing through educational programs of varying length and breadth of topics. Beware of these claims. You can only become "certified" if you successfully complete a credentialing examination. This means that we cannot call ourselves "certified" if we have completed an AMWA certificate program. The AMWA certificates certainly have value, as Kristina Wasson-Blader found in talking to many AMWA members, but we must not overstate ourselves. There is a tremendous difference between a certificate program and certification.

Although we cannot become certified in medical writing right now, we can add a veritable alphabet soup after our name by becoming certified in as many as six different medical communication niches:

The multiple choice questions on these certification exams address best practices and standards in fields broader than medical writing/editing, and an actual writing or editing component is lacking in most of these exams. (Only the grant writing certification exam includes a writing component.) Even the certification program recently developed by the Society for Technical Communication (STC) does not have a writing component. Completing an "editing exercise" is, however, part of that application process. It seems necessary (to me, anyway), that a medical writing certification process actually include a writing component. Yes, we should know best practices, standards, and ethics, but the bottom line is that employers and clients want to know if we can write well.

The availability of these various credentials is clearly not sufficient for many AMWA members, as evidenced by the 2010 member survey. Nearly two-thirds of us answered "yes" to the question "Is professional certification with a competency examination desirable for the medical communication profession?"

As the umbrella organization for all medical communicators, AMWA is best suited to develop a certification process specific to medical writing.
And our association has stepped up to the challenge and is committed to making us all certifiable. The September issue of the AMWA Journal features a discussion of medical writing certification, and the article (which has been granted public access) outlines AMWA's efforts to date and the challenges of developing a certification process that best measures the knowledge and skills of a medical writer.

The first step in developing any certification process is to define the competencies needed for the profession. That step has been made, but down only one medical writing pathway. As published in the June issue of the Journal, a special interest group in the Drug Information Association (DIA) developed a competency model to describe the work functions, activities, knowledge, skills, and behaviors deemed necessary to perform successfully as a medical writer in the pharmaceutical industry. Despite being relevant only to regulatory writers, many attributes in the model could be applied more universally, which could make the model a starting point for defining competency more broadly. However, the broad approach has its problems. As Tom Lang notes in this month's featured discussion, a "one-size-fits-all" exam may not be the best tool to assess medical writing competency because of the wide variety of tasks performed by medical writers and editors in a range of settings.

The challenges are clear. How do you develop a certification process that is both broad and specific? Can we assess skills essential for medical writing in all areas without the questions being too basic? Can we establish objective measures for something as subjective as a writing sample or portfolio? Can we address our diversity through eligibility criteria or through a core exam, with additional exam "modules" based on specialty area?

These are just some of the many issues AMWA is tackling in the early stages of exploring certification in medical communication. AMWA is consulting with experts both within our ranks and in other organizations to find solutions. And we are lucky to now have the expertise of Susan Krug, who joined AMWA to replace Donna Munari as Executive Director when Donna retires in October. Susan has worked with other organizations that have developed a certification program and is eager to help us achieve our goal of becoming certifiable.

Until that goal is reached, we must rely on our writing to speak for itself.


  1. Awesome article. So glad you are raising this issue, Lori. I look forward to following this thread in weeks and months to come.

    One question of fact: you mention "a time of tough competition among writers." While I don't disagree with this assertion -- it certainly seems as though competition is increasing -- I'm wondering if you know of any data to substantiate this?

    Another question: Why is there no networking reception scheduled during our upcoming annual conference in October for people interested in certification? Or is there one and I just overlooked it on the program?

  2. Initially, I sat for the GPC because I couldn't afford to take grants management courses at $800 a credit hour. Instead I studied and took the exam, which was about $500. The credential has been a confidence booster for me. However, it's my years of experience and millions of dollars won that gets me work. But I cannot disparage the credibility the GPC adds to my CV. It was definitely a bargain.

    I'm pleased you consider the GPC to be a credential within the purview of medical writers. I didn't know that medical writers get GPCs. I consider myself more of a career changer, although 90% of my grant output are health and medically related.

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  4. I'm surprised by how few comments there are on this thread since it began in 2011. The topic of certification for medical writers is such a rich vein of ore for discussion among members of the profession. Is anyone reading this blog?