Medical writing is an interdisciplinary field that applies knowledge of both rhetoric and science to enhance reader understanding of medical phenomena. There are many different audiences in medical writing, which accompany its wide spectrum of subspecialties. The audience of a medical journalist, for example, is different from the audience of a grant writer. Nevertheless, nearly all medical writers share a like-minded value: to articulate medical information to their readers in the most effective ways possible.
Medical writing is different from other types of professional writing because it incorporates knowledge, methods, and terminology from a variety of fields. For instance, biostatistics, journalism, medicine, English, public health, and pharmacy are fields that most medical writers tend to consult regularly.
Medical journalism, a subspecialty of medical writing, is important because it helps connect the scientific community with the general public. Newspapers and magazines like the Los Angeles Times and Scientific American are well-known for publishing public-oriented articles on science and medicine.
Goals of Medical Journalism
- To accurately represent the research of scientists and clinicians
- To entertain readers by providing unique perception and insight
- To articulate complex, scientific material to more public-oriented communities
Elements of Medical Journalism
Representing the research of scientists and clinicians is a major responsibility, and it is important to never make assumptions about material you may not understand. Most scholarly journals like Nature and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) will provide an e-mail address for author correspondence within their articles. This is a wonderful opportunity to ask questions, obtain quotes, and to clarify information with the author.
Translating primary literature is one of the most challenging aspects of medical journalism. You must capture the perception of the scientist(s) and create a reader-centered article simultaneously. When writing your article, be sure to address the highlights of the study; it is not always necessary to reference every step of the experimental procedure. Nevertheless, you should read the entire journal article carefully. This will help you evaluate the information and ask potential interviewees (e.g., scientists) more specific questions. The following examples show how a medical journalist might revise technical information for general purpose reading.
Desensitization (converse of secondary sensitization) is distinguished from habituation (converse of primary sensitization) by the explicit expression of memory rebound and recovery effects in the post-stimulation response.
"In the study, Poon and his colleagues use two types of nonassociative learning called habituation and desensitization to promote a better patient-ventilator interaction. Habituation refers to a person's decrease in responsiveness to a repeated stimulus. In terms of the fireworks example, you may learn to successfully "block out" or become more accustomed to the loud, recurring noises over time. On the other hand, desensitization is a person's diminished response to a second stimulus as a result of the first stimulus. For instance, if you became more accustomed to the loud fireworks through repeated sounds, your ability to hear other noises might have decreased, too."
Importantly, we showed that the application of PEEP momentarily dampened the entrainment but this adverse effect was gradually buffered by respiratory adaptation via nonassociative learning.
"Habituation enables the natural breathing rhythm of the patient to adapt to the rhythm of the ventilator. Similar to the fireworks example, the patient becomes more accustomed to a single type of stimulus: the breaths delivered by the ventilator. Desensitization works by combating the static signal produced by PEEP and continuous lung inflation. The patient, therefore, becomes less affected by changing pressures (second stimulus) as a result of their ability to naturally adapt to the ventilator-delivered breaths."
Overviews of Sample Articles
To show you how a medical writer translates technical information from a scholarly context to readers in the general public, we have included in this resource an original publication and its corresponding journalistic article. An article on a medical researcher is also included as an example of how to report a conference presentation on technical information to the general public. Links for these articles are listed below in the All Sections in Medical Writing box.
Researchers from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology learned that nonassociative learning, a natural capability of the human body, promotes a better patient-ventilator interaction. This research article appeared in the September 12, 2007, issue of PLoS ONE, an open-access journal from the Public Library of Science.
"Langer Speaks at MIT"
This article features coverage of Dr. Robert Langer's presentation at the 2007 Whitehead Institute Symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the symposium, Dr. Langer discussed his role in advancing the field of tissue engineering.
JAMA & Archives Journals. AMA manual of style: A guide for authors and editors, 10th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2007.
Blum D, Knudson M, Henig RM, eds. A field guide for science writers. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2006.
Taylor RB. The clinician's guide to medical writing. New York, NY: Springer; 2005.
1. Poon CS, Young DL. Nonassociative learning as gated neural integrator and differentiator in stimulus-response pathways. Behav Brain Funct. 2006;2(29). doi:10.1186/1744-9081-2-29.
2. MacDonald SM, Song G, Poon CS. Nonassociative learning promotes respiratory entrainment to mechanical ventilation. PLoS ONE. 2007;2(9):e865. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000865.
The original articles included in this resource are protected by a Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/
Medical Writing Sample: Original Scholarly Article
Medical Writing for a Scholarly Audience
The article included in this resource as a PDF, "Nonassociative Learning Promotes Respiratory Entrainment to Mechanical Ventilation," is the original research report published for a scholarly audience. A sample of how a medical journalist might rewrite this article is included in the next resource listed below.
Medical Writing Sample: Revised Article
Medical Writing for the General Public
The medical writing sample included in this resource as a PDF, "Under Pressure," is an example of how a medical journalist might rewrite the scholarly article included in the previous resource.
Medical Writing Sample: Reporting on a Conference Presentation
Medical Writing and Conference Presentations
Medical writers and journalists often attend scholarly conferences to report on the latest research. The article included here as a PDF, "Langer Speaks at MIT," is an example of how to write for the general public about conference presentations.