Most of the time when I am contacted to cover a pharmaceutical advisory board, I sign a nondisclosure agreement before I even discuss the nature of the project with the client. It protects them, but it also makes things easier for me. I like to put my name on something that gives me a solid reason to say, “I can’t talk about that.” I don’t like to tell my clients no, so if I say “I’ve written a lot about disease X,” and they ask, “Which drugs?” I can respond with “I can’t really say.”
Some of my family members are doctors, and I have done a lot of volunteer work in medical settings. During my training at Emory, I participated in an extensive ethics program that covered everything from top-secret lab notebooks to confidentiality and research with human subjects. All of these things gave me a pretty healthy intuitive sense of how to behave. But there are some things that I’ve learned that are important for anyone writing for an advisory board to know that I have added to my own mental medical writing ethics handbook. Especially if you are a freelance medical writer, this is important! If there’s a crowded disease space, you may end up writing for competing companies and not even know it.
Organize all materials provided to you by the client the moment you get them. This is just good practice, but a whole bunch of junk on your desktop or scattered around is not good. Let’s say that you’re asking questions about a particular slide and whoever you are talking to notices that you have 15 other advisory board documents on your computer in plain view. Even if you don’t have two diabetes clients, companies can have products in more than one space, and you might not even know it. Also, anyone seeing their competitor’s name on your desktop now knows how poorly you are handling their top-secret information.
Don’t talk about what you are working on. You never know who you are talking to, or even near. Do not go out to dinner and gripe about work by telling your best friend that you are writing about a drug for disease X and the company is doing great/failing/freaking out because of Y. The guy behind you could be the king of your client’s biggest competitor. Your best friend could go to a barbecue in three weeks and try to impress some guy she just met who is a resident at the local hospital by spitting out the only thing she heard about medicine recently (ie, all the stuff you told her about your client). What if that resident’s advisor was a PI in the clinical trial you discussed? Save yourself some grief and keep your mouth closed.
Protect your computer, cloud, and external hard drive. After I finish a project, I usually put the file containing all the materials onto an encrypted external hard drive. I never work on public computers, even to send e-mails. This aspect of my work is important enough to me that I don’t even try to figure out what I need in order to protect information on my own. I have a trusted “computer guy” who knows more about it and keeps up with the changes in the field. I worry about keeping up with my clients, and he takes care of making sure I don’t inadvertently compromise information by being a computer security amateur.
Because 95% of my writing is for advisory boards, I can’t share any of it when a new client asks me for samples. I have never had client who didn’t understand and appreciate that the medical writer they are about to hire respects confidentiality. Some of the articles and white papers I’ve written are public, and often, meeting notes from societies are alright to share (I know because I ALWAYS ask). When I do really need to provide a sample, I have carefully selected de-identified documents. I remove the name of the client and/or communications company that hired me if it’s there; I include only a small portion of the document; I modify reports that are at least 12 months old; I remove the names of any participants; I change the name of the drug (or any other drugs that are used to treat the same disease); and I change the name of the disease. After I do this, I send it to my editor to read through so she can make sure that even the most maniacal spy in the world couldn’t figure it out. Because the people asking you for the sample are just making sure that you know what you are doing, a few pages is usually more than enough.
Social media. I am not an expert here. I opened a Facebook account in college and promptly forgot about it. That said, I have been in a room where an employee of a competitor commented on something on research gate, and the secret he inadvertently gave away became a brand-new point on the agenda for the day. This is another iteration of keep your mouth closed.
When in doubt, shred it. Most of the time, there is someone responsible for collecting meeting materials. I’ve even been in meetings where specialized security teams make sure that all printed material is returned to the pharmaceutical company to be shredded. If you walk out of a meeting with an agenda, a seating chart, the flip chart pages, or something like that, it is your responsibility to make sure that it never sees the light of day. Do not recycle it in your room or throw it in the trash at the airport. The first thing you should do when you get home is check your bag for materials and shred them immediately.
It is possible to share your experiences and network effectively without mentioning a single drug name. You don’t even need to disclose disease states if you make sure to have carefully chosen de-identified samples, or even swap stories with your clients without putting any confidential information at risk. For example, I have found in my travels that flip charts in the front of the room are rarely helpful. No one likes to watch someone else write on a flip chart. I can easily share that information with my clients without compromising confidentiality.