Medical Writing Careers--A Singaporean's Perspective

When I landed my first job in the pharmaceutical industry in 1997, I was not aware of what medical writers do and wondered how medical writers fit in. As I gained familiarity with the industry, I began to appreciate the importance of medical writing. According to Bob Bonk in his 1998 book Medical Writing in Drug Development, medical writers "capture, meld, disentangle, juxtapose, and reassemble biomedical information into logical packages for varied audiences." The medical writer?s aim is to transmit complex scientific information and key messages to the reader as unobtrusively as possible. This might sound simple; however, it is never as easy as one thinks it ought to be. Medical writing can require a painful-delightful mixture of scientific and editorial skills!

As medical writers, many of us spend at least 6 hours a day sitting at a desk, staring at the computer screen, working with statistical outputs (in the form of tables and graphs), literature, and slide presentations. The rest of the time is spent editing, answering the telephone, attending meetings, and discussing research with investigators and project team members. Medical writers work on clinical trial protocols and reports (documenting research that is conducted to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of a particular drug), newsletters or materials for medical education programmes (describing a new drug to health care practitioners and to patients), and marketing materials promoting health care products or services. Writing submission documents, particularly clinical trial reports, can be greatly facilitated by standardization of text modules. This is achieved with the help of guidelines from the International Conference of Harmonization, International Good Clinical Practices, and companies' Standard Operating Procedures. Likewise, writing a manuscript for publication is guided by the "Instructions to Authors" from the medical journal.

Medical writers come from just about every scientific discipline. Besides the obvious professions--medicine, biology, pharmacology, and the like--there are some medical writers in the West who began their careers in journalism and teaching and thus have strong writing experience. Obviously, a background in a scientific or biomedical field is an added advantage. Until recently, no formal degree program (apart from the certificate programmes offered by associations such as the American Medical Writers Association and the European Medical Writers Association) in medical writing existed. Besides professional qualifications, medical writers are expected to have a good understanding of basic statistics and strong computer skills. In terms of personal competencies, highly versatile medical writers with analytical capabilities, good networking skills, and the ability to multitask are preferred.

Career paths for medical writers vary considerably. Medical writers work for pharmaceutical companies, clinical research organisations, communication agencies, hospitals, or as freelancers. Unlike in the West (particularly in the United States), where the medical writing profession is more established and assistance from several writing associations in getting contacts, work, support, and advice is available, this profession is relatively new in Asia.

What are the career opportunities for medical writers in Singapore? From my observations, the position is not frequently advertised in local newspapers. Furthermore, from my participation in European Medical Writers Association conferences over the years, I've yet to run into a Singapore-based medical writer working at another pharmaceutical company apart from four of us at Novo Nordisk. Nonetheless, with the increasing numbers of pharmaceutical companies and contract research organisations setting up offices in Singapore in recent years, I foresee bright prospects for people aspiring to be medical writers in Singapore in the years ahead.

Currently, the pharmaceutical industry is the major component of the biomedical sciences industry (comprising the pharmaceutical, medical device, biotechnology, and health care services sectors). By 2010, the nation will be able to host 15 world-class biomedical sciences companies and will become the region's hub for biomedical sciences activities, including drug discovery and development, clinical research, and health care delivery. All these are in line with Singapore's intent to become a knowledge-based economy, focusing on innovation, capabilities, and talent.

This rapid growth in the pharmaceutical industry is due to the increased interest in clinical trials, primarily due to the (i) ease of access to treatment-naïve patients; (ii) ability to generate Asian data to address issues of ethnic diversity; (iii) early development of Asian key opinion leaders; (iv) potential of shortening the investigational drug development time; and (iv) capacity to reduce research costs in Asia (reflecting lower cost of medical care). Given the complexity in medical research, medical writing will become an ever more essential part of the process.

Last but not least, medical writing is definitely a worthwhile job, and I would encourage anyone keen to develop his career in the pharmaceutical industry to join as a medical writer. The dynamic environment, multifaceted tasks, and satisfaction of seeing a task through from beginning to end are rewarding. It is definitely a challenging and well-respected job!

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