When I first started out as a medical writer, I was a research scientist dabbling in communications. I thought medical writing was all about organizing facts in a way that made sense. Kind of like organizing reagents so that your experiments work. As I gained experience, I found myself writing about different diseases and drugs and sitting in on more and more meetings. I started to connect with the material.
Especially when I work on rare diseases, I can see how important it is to physicians to finally be able to do something for their patients. When I write for diabetes advisory boards, I can see how physicians are constantly searching for the “thing they can say,” to get their patients to try exercising. Even though I know I am writing for a business, I am also writing for physicians and patients. I am part of a process that keeps the lines of communication between pharmaceutical companies and the people they serve open. Without clear communication, the company may never know how to reach the people that need to be treated or how to best communicate research findings with clinicians.
I believe that part of what makes me good at my job is that when I am writing about something, I am 100% dedicated to it. When I write about any disease, I immerse myself in information about the patients, the conversations they are having with their doctors, and how the doctors are thinking about treatment. I eat and breathe the mechanism and outcomes. I take on the objectives of the meeting or the outcomes reported in a publication as my own. The downside of dedication is that the struggles of patients with their disease, and the struggles of physicians with the medical system in general, can really eat me up. There is no elegant way to say it: it can be so very sad.
Research made me frustrated sometimes, but never really sad. I’m sure any MDs who might be reading this are rolling their eyes, because they dance along the line between empathy and self-sacrifice all the time, but as a medical writer, that feeling was new to me. So, if you’re a writer and you find yourself feeling down about how stupid it is that physicians have 6 minutes to spend with their terminally ill patients, or that the only available medicine for disease X costs $15,000 a month, you’re not the only one.
What to do? General self-care practices are a no brainer, so I won’t review the importance of diet, exercise, breathing, and milling around a museum every so often. It’s also important to develop the tools to be able to identify when you even have the medical writing blues. I always know I’ve got a bad case when my views on life take a fatalistic turn and I find myself feeling down after writing. When this happens, I do three things:
- I take a moment to be grateful for my heath. Gratitude is something that is easy to gloss over, but it goes a long way. Go ahead, think “yeah, yeah, I have my health,” then stop and try again. Take a moment and reflect on how amazing it is that all your cells ended up in the right place before you were born, that your digestive system is properly enervated, that your blood cells are rushing through your veins at exactly the right rate. Doctors and scientists know and understand the delicacy of the connections (from atoms to organ systems) that somehow comprise the amazingly resilient human body. None of us did anything to deserve healthy bodies; we just happen to have them. A deep gratitude for health is the best way to acknowledge the struggles of patients and the doctors and scientists who work so hard to heal.
- Service. I find that when medical writing gets me down, the best thing I can do is something for someone else. I give a gift to the world around me. I make sure that my next appointment to donate blood is made, or I volunteer for a day at the food bank. I take a moment to say encouraging things to the entrepreneurs who I sometimes find banging their heads on the table in my coworking space.
- Reach out to organizations that I know do patient-centered research and offer my services. Sometimes the perfect antidote to the medical writing blues is a project that is designed only to serve and empower patients and doctors. I’m not recommending throwing yourself into unpaid work, because that will also make you, ahem, sad, but sometimes a balance in the nature of the work you do is really helpful.
These things not only make me feel better, but ensure that I am recharged for my next advisory board or meeting, so I can shake off any cynicism and approach new objectives with refreshed energy and drive!