Tuesday, September 27, 2011

People Are Talking

The topic of certification certainly has people talking. The last blog entry drew the most attention of all entries to date, with the topic generating quite the buzz. As is true for any important issue, debate is healthy and consideration of all aspects will ultimately lead to better decision-making and outcomes.

Medical communicators are talking about more than certification—they're also talking about medical communication. The most recent evidence of this conversation includes an interview on BitesizeBio (brain food for biologists), in which Lauren Donaldson, PhD, describes her move from science to medical writing, and an article published in Nature, in which Laura Bonetta discusses a medical writing career. Medical writers on the other side of the ocean have contributed to the conversation, primarily through MedComms Networking, a UK-based site that offers short videos of medical communicators describing their careers and other "starting out" resources.

I love that people are talking about medical communication as a career because, let's face it, our profession needs more exposure. (How many times have you had to explain exactly what it is you do?) However, two things concern me.

First, many people talking about medical communication are not AMWA members, and I think this may skew the outside perception of our field. For example, in a videotaped panel discussion on science writing, one of five panelists (none of whom was an AMWA member), drew a distinction between "science writing" and "medical writing," noting that the latter "tends to be" writing regulatory documents. However, every type of "science" writing and editing discussed by the panel fell into the category of what we know as "medical writing." Pharmaceutical writing is also the focus of Donaldson's interview and the videos on the MedComms Networking; neither Donaldson nor the video presenters are AMWA members. In contrast, the Nature article includes information on various types of medical writing—probably because Bonetta spoke with several AMWA members in developing the article. (As a point of disclosure, I was one of the members quoted in the article.) We have to let people know that we are more than regulatory writers

The recent conversations on medical writing also included an article by one writer (not an AMWA member) who left the field because of authorship issues. Obviously, our profession is not presented at its best by articles declaring rampant authorship fraud. So, we also must let people know we are not g-writers! (AMWA members are loathe to spell out or say that dreaded word.) We should be talking about our ethical handling of authorship issues and the resources AMWA provides for such issues, primarily the AMWA Position Statement on the Contribution of Medical Writers, the AMWA Code of Ethics, and easy access to a host of publication and ethics guidelines and statements.

AMWA members should also be doing more of the talking because we know the value of AMWA's educational resources, particularly for those new to the field. If more AMWA members were engaged in the public conversation of our profession, people considering the field would not only better understand the various career options in the field but would also discover an organization that can help them enhance their professional skills and knowledge.

My second concern is the intended audience of these career descriptions. Most articles are directed at young scientists, with medical communication presented as a career alternative to a life at the bench. Targeting young scientists has a long history, and previous articles in magazines such as Science have extolled the virtues of our profession. What's wrong with this? Nothing in and of itself. But where are the articles targeted to people in nonscientific fields, such as writing, communication, mass media, English, and journalism? Where are the "starting out" videos for students who may be interested in applying their writing/communication education and skills to the field of medicine and health? Why is it always about attracting people in science who like to write rather than attracting people skilled at writing who may like the complexities and challenges of writing in the medical field?

Because of the paucity of articles directed at writing/communication professionals, I was thrilled when the Society for Technical Communication (STC) asked me last year to write an article about the medical communication profession for its member magazine. Together, I and Lili Fox Velez compared medical communication and technical communication as two branches of the same family tree, hoping to entice some technical communicators to venture out on our branch. It was the first time (to my knowledge), that another organization of communicators wanted to promote our specific profession. Similarly, the freelance writing community recognized our niche and interviewed AMWA member Cyndy Kryder about her life as a freelance medical writer, publishing the article on the FreelanceSwitch Web site. Kudos to Kryder for promoting AMWA as a valuable resource throughout the interview! But these two articles seem to be the exception, and for some reason, the writing/communication world has not presented medical writing as a career option to the same extent that the scientific community has. That means we must take it upon ourselves to promote our profession within the writing/communication world. And we should broaden the focus to encompass not only experienced writers but also writing students early in their education.

Why? Because our profession will benefit by having more people preparing for a career in medical communication rather than falling into it, as most of us have. Sure, the majority of us made successful career transitions, but just as we have benefitted from the expertise that scientists have brought from the bench, we will benefit from what writing/communication experts bring to the table. As Tom Lang has written, we create the most effective documents when we draw on the evidence base for writing and editing; ie, theories of composition, cognitive processing and learning, persuasion, publication design, visual perception, instructional design, Web design, memory, and so on. We need people with expertise in these areas in our profession.

AMWA has a variety of materials to promote itself, and they are valuable for both the nonscientific and the scientific community. One example is the AMWA Annual Conference Student Scholarship, and the subsequent success of scholarship recipients is a testimony to the value of conference attendance as a "starting out" resource. AMWA members also collaborated on a slide set that introduces medical writing as a career. I have used this slide set myself, as have others, to talk to research postdocs and students in pharmacology and other science-based programs. We need to use the slide set more often for students in writing/communication programs. The most recent AMWA effort is a compilation of AMWA Journal articles on the theme of exploring a career in medical communication. This compilation will be available as an e-book at the time of the annual conference. (You will hear more about it here when it's available.) We should ensure that this compilation is marketed to a broad audience in a variety of fields.

What can AMWA members do on the individual level? Volunteer for career day or a career exhibit at a local high school or university. Ask the faculty of university writing programs to consider a panel presentation on various careers in writing—and tell them you'd be happy to speak about medical communication. (You can use the AMWA slide presentation, after all.) Send flyers to colleges and universities about your chapter conferences and other regional events to give students an opportunity to learn about the field. Have copies of the AMWA Career Path brochure on hand for them. Most of all, just keep talking!

If you're not an AMWA member, why aren't you? Visit the AMWA Web site to see what you're missing, and join the conversation as an AMWA member.

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.