How To Become A Health Writer
Maybe you’re a health care provider looking to expand beyond the realm of clinical work. Maybe you’re a fitness expert looking to reach a wider audience. Or maybe you’re someone with a talent for writing and an interest in health and wellness looking to apply your skills. Whatever the case, you may be interested in a new venture as a health writer.
What Health Writer Jobs Exist?
Whether you are approaching health writing as a clinician or a layperson, the steps to becoming a health writer are more similar than you might expect. You may look at it as a side hustle, particularly if you are a provider satisfied with your clinical position or a layperson just starting out. However, health writing can turn into a lucrative career. Projected earnings vary depending on a number of factors:
- Whether you are an employee or a freelancer
- The type of work you do
- Your experience
- Where you live
Nevertheless, according to the American Medical Writers Association, even a beginning or junior-level medical writer can earn between $52,000 and $80,000 per year.
What Is Health Writing?
“Health writing” is a broad term with different connotations for various situations. It can include a freelance health and fitness writer who writes light lifestyle pieces for consumption by the general public as well as a scientist who writes research-heavy tomes for use in the medical community. According to one definition, medical fiction also counts as health writing, so authors such as Robin Cook and Michael Crichton could also be considered health writers, although I wouldn’t look to their books for guidance on how to live well.
When I use the term “health writing” in this article, I’m looking at it as a large category of writing related to general health and well-being that’s divided into three main subcategories:
- Medical Writing: Work related specifically to the science of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease, which can be either professional-facing or public-facing
- Wellness Writing: Work that is usually public-facing and devoted to promoting a general state of well-being as it relates to intrapersonal matters, such as lifestyle and diet, as well as socio-economic factors
- Fitness Writing: Similar to wellness writing in audience and scope, but focused specifically on maintaining a healthy weight and muscle mass through sports and exercise
If you want to be a health writer, then regardless of what subcategory you choose to specialize in, make sure that the content you put out is accurate and factual. It must also draw from reputable sources. Both your audience and the people who hire you to write the content expect and demand reliable information based on scientific data.
What Does a Health Writer Do?
The answer to this question depends partly on what subcategory of health writing most interests you. For example, a magazine may advertise “fitness writers needed” to create how-to articles about effective exercise techniques. Because medical writing may be either public-facing or professional-facing, there are many different types of content that you may write when working in this specific subcategory.
Professional-facing content is written for an audience of health care professionals, including doctors, researchers, nurses, physical therapists, lab technicians, etc. It may include manuscripts and articles intended for publication in a medical journal or presentations for scientific conferences. It may also include research proposals, clinical trial protocols, or study reports. Textbooks for medical students or educational content for Continuing Medical Education programs are additional examples.
Public-facing content is intended to be read by the general public on sites like WebMD for patients with particular health conditions and their families, as well as people who are conducting basic research or seeking information generally. The health writer needs to make such content comprehensible to an audience of laypeople, which means using plain language for the most part and keeping medical terms and jargon to a minimum. If you are writing public-facing content, you should be prepared to explain any medical terminology that you end up using in the text.
Medical journalism is one of the most common types of public-facing health writing. When a new medical development or breakthrough occurs, a medical journalist explains it to the public in the form of a magazine or newspaper article. Medical journalists may also write press releases for university research facilities, private pharmaceutical companies, etc.
Another opportunity for a health writer interested in public-facing content is patient education. When a patient is diagnosed with a disease, he or she will likely turn to other sources to find out as much as possible about his or her condition. Patient education writers perform a valuable service by interpreting clinical information about the disease into plain language that those affected can understand clearly.
Are Health Writers in Demand?
As you enter into your new venture, you may encounter multiple pleas of “health writers wanted.” There are several reasons why health writers are currently in high demand and likely to stay that way.
Medical Industry Growth
One really exciting and rewarding aspect of working in the medical industry in general, and the field of medical communication in particular, is that there is always something new and fascinating to learn. Scientists are constantly conducting research into disease processes, treatment techniques, diagnostic tools, and pharmaceutical therapies. Health writers are a vital link in explaining new medical developments to physicians and patients alike.
Patient Education Need
The current COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the vital role that a health writer can play in disease management and prevention. The disease is caused by a novel coronavirus that emerged less than a year ago. Because the disease is new, researchers have had to work quickly yet thoroughly to gain an understanding of the virus, its effects and its contagiousness, as well as effective means of preventing the spread.
Medical writers have had a crucial role to play in providing the necessary information to health care professionals and the general public, which is not an easy task for several reasons. As researchers’ understanding of the virus grew, the information changed. Articles about COVID-19 sometimes became out of date almost as quickly as they were written. At the same time, there has been a wave of misinformation disseminated through social media outlets. Part of a health writer’s responsibility is to evaluate sources and reject the unreliable ones to be sure that the information presented is as accurate as possible based on the most recent data available.
The need for accurate and timely patient education is also evident in the aging baby boomer population. Born during the first two decades following World War II, baby boomers are currently the second-largest generation of adults in the United States after millennials. The oldest baby boomers reached retirement age in approximately 2010. By 2030, all of them will be at least 65 years old.
As baby boomers age, they become susceptible to a wider range of health issues, some of which are degenerative in nature. Boomers, their family members, and their caregivers need access to accurate information about specific health problems they may face, as well as thoughtful guidance about health and wellness targeted specifically to older people. At the same time, health care providers need detailed literature about providing effective treatment to a burgeoning elderly population.
What Are the Steps To Become a Health Writer?
If you are already a medical professional, the path to becoming a health writer may be slightly different than that which you would take as a journalist or professional writer without specialized health knowledge. Nevertheless, the steps that you take along the path are remarkably similar to that which you would take as a layperson.
While health writers are in demand, your success for becoming one depends on demonstrating that you have the necessary skills, knowledge, and writing ethos to produce quality medical, wellness, or fitness content. Whether you are a health care provider, a professional writer, or a hopeful amateur, you need to take roughly the same steps to establish your qualifications.
1. Get the Necessary Education
To be considered for a health writing position or freelance gig, you typically need to have at least a four-year bachelor’s degree. This can be in any area of study, but it is often helpful if it is in the sciences or language arts, as these knowledge bases are directly transferable to health writing.
If you have an associate’s degree in a medical field, that might be sufficient to open the door to health writing, especially if you have practical experience to back it up. If you are a physician or a registered nurse, then you have already met the educational requirement and can skip to the next step.
2. Strengthen Your Weak Areas
If you are already a health care professional, you may not have to do as much to establish yourself as a medical writer. However, you may need to refresh yourself on the rules and conventions of writing. This is especially true if you have not produced much since completing your education.
If you’re approaching health writing via the other path, you may already have the necessary writing skills but lack the scientific knowledge required. If this is the case, it is crucial that you give yourself a basic grounding in medicine, particularly medical terminology. Even if you intend to write public-facing content, you still need to understand and correctly interpret the professional language that you will encounter while researching the content that you write. There are training programs available to help you, most available for a reasonable fee.
On a related note, as someone who worked in medical communication for the better part of a decade, I recommend that anyone serious about health writing obtain medical spellcheck software and install it on your computer. It’s not a substitute for understanding medical terminology, but when it comes to the proofreading and editing stages, it saves you so much time.
3. Update Your Resume
Your resume should reflect both your knowledge of health care and your skills in writing. If you’re a layperson just starting out in health writing, this can be a little tricky at first. Nevertheless, even if your experience is a little thin, you can list any training that you have gone through in regard to health writing and medical terminology.
On the other hand, if your experience is clinical in nature, you should refresh your resume to showcase any professional or scientific writing that you have already done. For example, if you have written articles that have been published in medical journals or other professional publications, that is something that you want to highlight on your resume when trying to establish yourself as a medical writer.
4. Join a Professional Organization and Get Credentialed
Becoming a member of a professional organization, such as the American Medical Writers Association, can open a lot of doors for you. Professional organizations often offer you the opportunity to receive a certification or other credential. This can give you an edge when you are competing against non-credentialed writers for positions and jobs. It shows that you have met or exceeded a baseline set of standards for qualification in your chosen area. Membership in a professional organization may also give you access to exclusive job search resources.
If you are already a health care provider, you are almost certainly a credentialed member of a professional organization. However, if you are serious about medical writing, you may want to consider becoming a member of AMWA or a similar organization to take advantage of the specific benefits it offers.
5. Establish Your Online Footprint
Certification and professional organization membership are important ways of establishing your credibility. However, in the Information Age, credibility also comes with a significant online presence. If you do not have much of a footprint on the World Wide Web, you may end up an unknown quantity to those who may be interested in hiring you to create health content for them. Furthermore, if you’re planning on writing content for web publication anyway, it is a good idea to show yourself to be technologically competent at the very least.
When you start seeking health writing jobs, you usually have to show a portfolio. You can build your portfolio while establishing your online footprint by starting up a blog related to medicine, wellness, or fitness. Once you have a blog, it puts you in a better position to start writing guest posts, which is another way to both demonstrate your writing skills and establish your online presence.
6. Build Your Network
Joining a professional organization is one way to start networking. However, you can do more to build your network. It can start with connections you already know. Ask your doctor, dentist, or veterinarian, as well as friends you may have in the health care field, if they know of any health writing opportunities. Read blogs related to health and medicine and get in touch with the authors about the possibility of becoming a guest contributor.
Where Can You Find A Health Writer Job?
Because health writing can be highly technical and requires specific qualifications, it can be difficult to find related jobs on ordinary employment sites. Where you go to find work as a health writer may depend on the kind of work you want to do. For example, if you want to write professional-facing content, you should query peer-reviewed medical journals, health care organizations, government agencies, or medical schools. On the other hand, if you want to write public-facing content, consider contacting newspapers, magazines, trade journals, or health care societies and associations.
A content writing agency such as BKA may also offer opportunities in health writing as well as a wide range of other fields. Companies and organizations seeking freelance health and fitness writers may benefit significantly from working with a writing agency as well.