Keeping your medical knowledge up to date can be difficult – and it’s even more daunting if you don’t have a background in health or medicine.
Although you don’t need to have a medical degree to be a health writer, having a solid understanding of medical information is fundamental to give you confidence and ensure your writing is medically accurate and current.
The good news is there are plenty of resources available to help you improve your medical knowledge – and you don’t have to wait until your next project comes along to start learning.
The scope of medical knowledge for writers
As a medical writer, you can work on a variety of roles and projects – depending on your writing skills and expertise.
Having a broad range of knowledge in medicine can help extend the range of services you provide as a health writer, but it can also help you to:
- be a more efficient medical writer
- conduct research for your writing projects more effectively
- write high-quality health content
Consider the following list of medical information topics as a start (which is by no means exhaustive):
- Anatomy – the structure of humans (and other organisms)
- Pharmaceutical drugs – medication used to treat and prevent disease
- Pathophysiology – changes in the body in response to disease
- Biology – the science of life
- Physiology – how molecules, cells and organs function
- Epidemiology – the study of diseases in populations
- Terminology – the body of specific medical terms
- Medical Statistics – applying statistics to understand medicine
- Public health – the health of the population
There are more than 120 subspecialties in medicine, and some are more specialised than others. Here are some of the more common medical specialties:
- Allergy and immunology – study of the immune system and allergies
- Adolescent medicine – focusing on patient health in adolescents (generally 9 to late teens)
- Anaesthesiology – focusing on pain relief during and after surgery
- Cardiology – disorders of the heart
- Dermatology – disorders of the skin
- Emergency medicine – patients requiring immediate and urgent care
- Endocrinology – endocrine system and related disorders
- Gastroenterology – digestive system and related disorders
- General practice – general medical doctors and physicians
- Geriatrics – health care of the elderly
- Obstetrics and gynaecology – focusing on female reproductive organs and pregnancy
- Health informatics – health information technology
- Infectious disease – focusing on the control and management of infections
- Nephrology – focusing on the kidneys
- Neurology – disorders of the nervous system
- Neurosurgery – nervous system (including the brain, spinal cord, nerves and cerebrovascular system)
- Occupational medicine – workplace-related health problems
- Ophthalmology – medical and surgical eye problems
- Orthopaedics – musculoskeletal system
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery – surgery involving the head, neck, face, jaws and mouth
- Otorhinolaryngology – ear, nose and throat
- Paediatrics – infants, children and adolescents
- Palliative care – end-of-life care
- Pathology – the study of disease
- Neonatology – newborn infants, including premature infants
- Physical medicine and rehabilitation – restoring and repairing physical function
- Plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery – altering and restoring the body
- Podiatric medicine – foot and ankle
- Pulmonology – respiratory tract
- Psychiatry – mental health
- Radiology – focusing on imaging techniques to diagnose and treat disease
- Sports medicine – focusing on sports injuries and fitness
- Radiotherapy – therapy using radiation, usually to treat cancer cells
- General surgery – abdominal surgery but also skin, soft tissue and trauma surgery
- Urology – female urinary tract system and male reproductive organs
Practical tips and resources to help you improve your knowledge
You may have identified a few areas in medicine you’d like to focus on and improve your knowledge in. Here’s how you can get started.
Of course, one of the best ways to improve your knowledge is through reading high-quality sources of information – the same resources that medical students refer to. You can read medical textbooks such as Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, and supplement this foundational knowledge with recent developments and current issues in clinical practice by sourcing medical literature.
2. Study short courses and seminars
Regardless of your background, there are plenty of short courses offered by industry groups for you to enroll and study. For example, your local pharmaceutical industry regulators usually offer industry specific short courses for working in the pharmaceutical industry. These courses are a great way to learn about pharmaceutical medications and your local industry regulations.
Seminars and workshops are also great for focused information dedication to an aspect of medicine. University faculties of medicine, health or science offer courses on a variety of medical topics such as, public health, statistics, evidence-based medicine or bioethics.
You may also use your memberships with professional associations, such as AMWA, to access the many online science and health related courses for new writers to the industry.
3. Medical apps
There are a few interactive medical apps that can be downloaded onto your mobile device. Essential Anatomy is an accurate interactive app that displays a 3D model of the body. You can learn anatomical language and structures by clicking on different body parts.
Most medication reference guides are online and have apps you can download for quick access. For example, in Australia MIMS has an app that indexes pharmaceutical drugs for accurate details about dosing and prescription. Look up your local reference guide for medications, most have apps you can download onto your mobile device.
4. Find a mentor
There’s no substitute for learning from an insider to the profession. Finding a medical colleague who is willing to share their medical knowledge with you can be priceless.
Speak to a colleague at work or use your professional network to find a mentor. You may be surprised at how willing and helpful your professional associations are to put you in touch with the right people to guide you or offer advice on how best to improve your medical knowledge.