First and most importantly, medical writing should not be confused with science writing. The latter is generally written by medically- or scientifically- qualified people who write earnestly about molecules and complex modes of action with super- and sub-scripted Greek lettering. They will usually have to wade through reams of data about a drug, an illness, or a specific benefit of one on the other, before delivering reams of copy that few people will ever read (only kidding).
Medical writing involves selling
Medical copywriting, the kind I have been doing for many years, usually involves some kind of selling (i.e. the benefits of a drug to a healthcare professional in the hope that said person will prescribe said product for an identified illness or condition). To be a good medical writer you don’t need a degree in biochemistry, but you do need writing talent.
Medical writing kicks off with a brief
Medical copywriting usually begins with a marketing brief, written or verbal (hopefully both), coming either directly from a client or an intermediary such as a medica
l advertising agency. The brief is the all-important document that sets out the requirements for the task ahead. These requirements can cover anything from some initial creative solutions and ideas (visuals and headlines together), an initiative name or theme (e.g. for a Symposium or Internal Communications) or fully referenced copy for a S
ales Aid, Website, GP Mailer, simpler copy for a Patient communication; or a combination of all these – i.e. a campaign. Of course, the better the brief, the better the medical copywriting.
Talking to the target audience
Medical writers generally address two basic groups. Medically qualified individuals: i.e. doctors, pharmacists, nurses, key opinion leaders, medical bodies and institutions; and those less medically qualified: i.e. the all-important patient, the sufferer of a disease, and the person who may be prescribed a promoted drug once the ‘medically qualified people’ have been convinced of its benefits and its relevance for that individual.
Branded and unbranded items
The medically qualified can receive ‘branded’ communications mentioning a drug or service e.g. ‘Amazex is 79% effective in rheumatoid arthritis1-17’. Patients, on the other hand, (at least in most EU countries)* can’t be sold a prescription drug directly. Thus patient communications (leaflets, educational materials, etc.) must remain unbranded. However, at the end of the patient communication there is often a subtle medical writing trick encouraging the patient to ask their doctor for something “really effective, well-tolerated and once-daily for their condition” that strangely enough only one product on earth seems capable of delivering!
*The situation is different in the US, where TV and magazine ads are always encouraging Bud and Mildred to pester their physicians about a new treatment for haemorrhoids, depression, stroke etc. – or a combination of these. Pity those poor US doctors, except of course their Bill Gates’-sized salaries.
Remember, at the end of the day, doctors and patients are people
Doctors and patients are all people and though their expectations of information may vary in complexity and content, they all want to be communicated to in their own way – i.e. in a way they can understand without being bombarded with terminology or obfustication (making something harder to understand, usually by complicating sentences needlessly – like this one). So even though one cuts one’s copy according to one’s audience, I make it a rule never talk up to (flatter) or talk down to (patronise) the target audience. I avoid blinding them with science or guilt. I try to tell them concisely and clearly what I want them to know, and let the facts speak for themselves, albeit with a soupçon of subtle (or more overt) selling.
About the writer:
Harry is an award-winning medical copywriter of many years standing. Following Creative Director positions at several leading UK healthcare ad agencies, he now devotes himself full-time to freelance medical copywriting. As well as the UK, he has worked in the EU, and likes working directly with clients as communication tends to be immediate and more efficient, with fewer levels of approval.