A medical writer/editor’s dilemma:
Where to obtain subject matter expertise?
I have been a medical writer/editor for 15 years. As part of my work, I consult a variety of Web sites for proper grammar and punctuation of obscure and current medical and scientific terms.
Most medical and technical writers and editors, as well as medical writing firms, pride themselves on the fact that they have X, Y or Z subject-matter expertise. But is it really an essential requirement for successful writing or editing of medical documentation? This is a heavily debated subject within the technical and medical writing communities. The simple answer is absolutely “Yes.”
According to a recent American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) survey, more than 90% of medical writers and editors work for pharmaceutical firms. These firms provide clear, concise and strict style guides that writers are expected to follow to a tee. That leaves the less than 10% of us with a dilemma when faced with the wide variety of medical and scientific subject matters we have to work on.
We work for university-based hospital research institutes, private medical editing firms and professional health care organizations. We are few and far between. As a result, we have to be very good at what we do, because we have to deal with a wide variety of medical, technical and scientific subject matters on a short-term basis. Editing peer-reviewed journal manuscript submissions or writing for specific government grant applications presents particular challenges to us. However, all medical and scientific journals and government granting agencies provide the medical writer/editor with specific structural and formatting guidelines, and often provide links to expert subject-matter resources.
In addition, there are many additional resources available to the medical writer/editor. For example, the Web sites I most frequently consult on expert subject matters are these:
- AMWA’s Web site offers a wide variety of resources to its members.
- The European Medical Writers Association also has an extensive list of resources for medical writers. http://www.emwa.org/
- Government agencies offer specific guidelines for submitting medical documentation. In the USA, these include the Centers for Disease Control
http://www.cdc.gov/ and the National Institutes of Health. http://www.nih.gov/
In Canada, these include the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/193.html and the Canadian Fund for Innovation
- Extensive medical dictionaries are available at the following sites:
Medical abbreviation, http://www.medilexicon.com/
Medline plus NIH dictionary http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/mplusdictionary.html
For example, on many of these sites, when I do a search for “OT-Gls-Lys-Arg-Neurophysin I,” I get the following hit: Did you mean “OT-Gly-Lys-Arg-Neurophysin I,” with the correct spelling, including the correct use of italics.
- There are also a wide variety of scientific dictionaries available online, such as:
- The Genome glossary offers a large selection of links to Web sites on various gene sequencing approaches and terminology.
- Finally, when all else fails, Google and Wikipedia also offer great grammar and spelling services for obscure medical terms.
http://google.com and http://en.wikipedia.org
- Expert subject matter is an essential requirement for producing professional medical and scientific documents.
- In addition to the essential requirement of having an excellent command of the English language, medical writers/editors need to be familiar with the variety of resources available to them.
- Also, familiarity with a second language is essential, since over 50% of medical documentation is written by non English-speaking researchers.
- Medical writers/editors should always refer to the links provided by their customers.