By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to the Toronto Sun
A growing number of health and medical writers are taking advantage of lucrative opportunities reporting on the developments and trends of the ever-evolving medical world. Their work can take on any number of formats: journal articles, promotional pieces for pharmaceutical companies, textbook chapters, symposium monographs or consumer magazine stories.
While there has always been a need for their expertise, two distinct trends have even further spiked demand: Baby Boomers' preoccupation with digestible health news including preventative health, and a proliferation of health-related media -- particularly websites in need of solid, timely copy.
Health news in demand
"These days wellness is a big part of health -- there's a growing demand for it," says health writer Avril Roberts. "The job is a lot easier now with the Internet and all the sites dedicated to health news. All of the papers have health pages now, and many supper newscasts have health segments. All of the national consumer magazines have health and wellness sections."
Roberts has built a busy career freelancing for various non-profit health organizations such as the Alzheimer Society of Canada, the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, the ALS Society of Canada and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Her assignments run the gamut from annual reports to press releases to consumer health brochures to newsletter profiles.
"I like the variety. You can move from one project to the next and each one can be different -- a 1,500 word article, a series of profiles, a brochure. It's always interesting," she says.
But what about the learning curve involved in understanding complex medical terms and concepts? It's been manageable for Roberts, who likes to constantly learn new things.
"The learning curve for me was never an issue. I like the idea of getting into something I know nothing about. You have to have healthy curiosity about things."
It was that healthy curiosity, in fact, that accidentally led her into this line of work. After a close friend died nine years ago, Roberts wanted some answers about her condition but had a hard time finding any. She realized that if she was having difficulty finding accurate, simplified information, there were probably others in the same boat. Contributing to the consumer health initiatives of non-profits is her way of remedying this situation.
"It made me interested in writing about health for the average person. Information is not necessarily forthcoming from the medical establishment. It's not even just that people don't know about certain conditions, but (that) they don't have enough information to ask the right questions."
Like Roberts, Marvin Ross is also concerned with the accuracy of the health information floating around the public sphere. A seasoned medical reporter who has contributed articles to The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, Ross says those in the profession have a strong responsibility to get the facts straight.
"There are a lot of desperate people out there, terminally ill people who will grasp at anything for help. You have to be very careful in what you say," says Ross, principal of Bridgeross Communications. "Much of the research reported is in preliminary stages, and that needs to emphasized more."
In addition to writing feature articles, Ross has contributed to the granddaddy of medical trade publications, The Medical Post. He has also penned two renowned books: Eyes, a book about ophthalmology that was endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association, and The Silent Epidemic: A Comprehensive Guide to Alzheimer's Disease, one of the Toronto libraries' most-borrowed books on the subject.
He says that the emergence of the Internet has made things much easier for medical scribes -- but a healthy dose of careful analysis is required when trolling for info online.
"It's a tremendous research tool -- I threw away my medical dictionary years ago because you can find it all online. But you have to have a lot of good research skills to do this type of writing -- you have to be very skeptical."
You also have to be familiar with the how studies are conducted, says Pippa Wysong. During her 10 years working as a staff writer at The Medical Post, Wysong covered more than 100 medical conferences on topics such as cardiology, dermatology, sports medicine and cancer. About three and a half years ago she left to become a freelance medical news writer. She advises entrants to the field to talk to experts and research online to learn about the clinical process.
"It doesn't hurt to sit with someone in the know and get tips on how to identify if a study is well done or not. If you're looking at clinical trial and only 10 people were involved, and there's a conclusion that the treatment is amazing, that's not enough people to confirm that. If you're not sure, it doesn't hurt to get a second opinion on the study."
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