It’s a Sunday night and I’m sitting in front of a fully-protected doctor asking me my personal particulars before they assess if I should be screened for the new coronavirus or not. Only some parts of his skin are exposed, I cannot see his face. He positions his gloved hands on the keyboard and pauses to ask behind his face mask, “what do you work as?” I have been asked this question multiple times – in family reunions, on dates, while traveling, in parties (I don’t party), and what not – and it has been rarely fun trying to explain it. I resist saying I’m an instructional designer because the chances of him understanding what that means are far more dismal. It’s 10 pm and I want to get over the anxiety of not knowing whether I have become a harbinger of the virus or not – sounding smart won’t help. “I’m a medical writer”, I answer. “Oh, like insurance?” “No.” I explain using a mouthful of words, then catch myself by condensing it with an “it’s hard to explain”. I understood my grandfather and the generation he came from when he assumed that I wrote drug literature (which I don’t) for my day job, and I try to understand the fact that what I do is not a conventional job description that most people have the familiarity with to understand. The same way I tried to understand when someone I went on a date with had asked me, “the smart girl” as he had annoyingly labeled me, what my PhD was on and I said “tissue engineering”, and him getting surprised that toilet papers needed to be engineered. It’s not uncommon for me that people reduce medical writing to something more akin to medical transcription (which is not lowly work by the way). Though I have also repeatedly experienced people who replied with a more overestimated assumption of “oh, you’re a doctor!” To which I answer with not any more hope of them being closer to the real definition with a, “well yes I have a PhD, but no that’s not what a medical writer is”.
When I was still in academia, I thought explaining what I did was already difficult. It seems like that challenge haunts me until now. I’m actually not a traditional medical writer, although I do some things that a medical writer does – which is to write all sorts of materials on healthcare: slide decks, detail aids, newsletters, down to invitations, flyers, and what not. It’s like copywriting, but with a necessity for disease and therapy understanding. I still read scientific journal articles and clinical trial papers (something I thought I’d escape outside academia), but the fun part is getting to communicate this in a far more effective, clearer and prettier way. As an instructional designer, I specifically keep in mind learning theories and user experience whenever I write content – and that’s why more than writing, I’m also designing. The end goal is of course to deliver effective learning. Our clients are pharmaceutical companies, which probably explains why this job description is overlooked by many as we work behind these bigger names. Think more around e-learning modules, training toolkits, interactive pdfs, patient awareness materials and the like. We bridge the gap between scientists and different stakeholders like doctors, nurses, drug representatives and patients – the science doesn’t simply pull through without us.
In hindsight, it was much easier to say “I repair broken hearts” back when I was doing my PhD on cardiac tissue engineering. At least then I was providing an easy way out to the predictable come back of “oh, could you repair mine?” Unfortunately my answer then was always both a figurative and scientifically-backed “no”. Because you can never regenerate hearts to their previous functionality once you “break” them (ie post myocardial infarction).
Now if only I could figure out a way to explain my current job description just as coyly.