From PA to Medical Writer

Becky Mueller - From Physician Assistant to Medical Writer

About Becky

I am a Physician Assistant, and I graduated in 2010. I studied at Roselin Franklin University in Chicago, because I am originally from the United States. I moved to Canada for love and started working in Oncology in Owen Sound Ontario. And then I transitioned to Palliative Care in Brampton, ON.

After doing that for 6.5 years I had two children and I felt my career shifting. It is a good thing, although it is scary to feel things shifting, it is ultimately a very good thing. I still work in Oncology, but I do at as a medical writer. I am still very much using my skill and knowledge as a Physician Assistant, in fact I feel its integral to me getting the jobs that I do as a writer. And I do it now from the writing aspect.

Why I Chose PA

I always knew I wanted to be in medicine somehow. There was a program for students who were academically doing well enough that the school from college education. I became a nurse in high school, and working as a 2-year-nurse at the age 16. I started at a nursing home, and then moved into internal medicine.

I always knew the medical realm was for me. It was a question of where. Where in that medical realm do I want to be? I knew pretty much right away that a physician was not for me. I felt that role is so independent that it was scary. The other thing, is that I knew that I didn’t want my work to take over my life. I wanted to enjoy my work, but I also wanted time to enjoy outside of work. I felt a lot of physicians I knew anecdotally had a difficult time with that.

Even 20 years ago, there was evidence that physicians have higher suicide rates, high depression rates, and struggled with the amount of workload that was happening. I knew I didn’t want to be that person. Then it came down to Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant. I could have gone down the Nurse Practitioner route, I was certainly already on that track.

But what made me decide PA over NP in the US, mind you, is that I wanted understand. The nursing route took this really empathic, whole person perspective, which is a beautiful thing and we certainly can’t lose that in our system. The piece that I really wanted was the research piece, and the science piece. So that’s how I ended up deciding to go with PA, because the pre-requisites really fell in that category. But to fulfill in the empathic side of myself, I also minored in medical ethics, while majoring in Biology and Chemistry. I spent quite a bit of time on my thesis of ethics, because it fulfilled that nursing piece of me that was maybe missing. I was able to get all the details of the research as well as biochemistry of what was happening in the body.

I even got to do research in undergraduate, which was my first time being published, I was about 20 years old, my first publication had nothing to do with medicine. It was on “Hermaphroditic Snail activity, and who becomes the male and who becomes the female during copulation”. That was my very first exposure to research. I travelled the US presenting my research and it was really an interesting and fun experience. It fulfilled my need in comprehension of research piece for PA school.

What I found fulfilling about being a PA

For me it was patients, I think that’s got to be it for all of us. I have been at the bedside of many people when they died. I actually really appreciated it. I felt so blessed and so lucky that I was allowed into a space that was so personal, and very private, and vulnerable. And I was not only allowed, but welcome into that space with patients and their families. There’s hope in death, although as a society and culture, we can’t acknowledge that, or we can’t find that. There may not be life, but there is hope in death.

And, it’s a beautiful process that is inevitable for all of us. Being at their bedside was just, unexplainable for me.

There’s certain people I will never forget, families I will never forget, they have an impact on me, impact on how I viewed the world and how I approached it. I think most of us feel that patients were the ultimate reward.

How I got into Medical Writing

I was really looking for something different. I wanted something that wasn’t an hour commute, and I wanted something that wasn’t full time and would allow me to be home with my kids as much as possible. I didn’t anticipate that was how I was going to feel after having children, but I really felt a pull to be there as much of the time as I could. We all as PAs to work really hard to see our patients.

I felt like if I was my best as a PA in clinical practice that I was not doing my best as a mom and vice versa. I needed to find a way to feel like I was being true to myself and true to my kids as well as true to my career.

I started looking at non-clinical facets to use my knowledge, and it really started by following MDs who have taken a non-clinical path. The first thing you always think of in the non-clinical realm is teaching. I did start getting involved in the McMaster PA program and I really enjoyed my time there. I do that a couple of times per week. I sit in there rooms and help them finding the solutions, and guide them in their cases. And I have a quite a good time with that.

And then as you continue to more things, you find there are these other avenues for non-clinical paths for people with an MD education which would absolutely apply to a PA education as well. Its just that fewer of us have done that.

Medical writing is one of the facets. I would say I am the least educated profession, most people either have their MD, PhD, multiple post-docs. They are very intelligent people who didn’t want to be a lab or clinical practice.

Another avenue is hospital administration. Another avenue Clinical Research Organizations (CROs), where you are being a leader in developing clinical studies, leading trials. There are many options, even with pharmaceutical companies as well. I just looked at all of those and asked, which one of them really best fits me?

And I never thought writing would really fit me, but it has. It has provided me the lifestyle that I really want o have and need to have. I can work from home the majority of time, unless I’m covering a conference. I can bring my kids to school, I can pick them up from school. And I only work during the hours that they are away. I can give my attention fully to them when they around, and I can give my attention fully to work when they are not around. I also still get to interact with the elite of the medical profession, and really enjoy intellectual side as well.

Working as a Medical Writer

There are different forms of writing. One example would be the Continuing Medical Education realm.

CME is required of all Physician Assistants, we need to complete a certain number of hours each year to maintain our certification as well as physicians and nurses. It’s because we need to keep up-to-date on our medical knowledge so that we are providing patients the best of care, at least the basic standard of care, and following the guidelines of our patients.  It’s really quite fun.

I do journalistic-type writing, where I travel to different conferences around, usually just North America. I report on the new research that has been presented. My articles typically go to Global Communications Companies that put it out to different providers.

I do the same thing on a weekly basis following the research that has been released. Most of the time I am trying to do that with a Canadian focus, so I produce articles on a regular basis, on a weekly basis that has a Canadian Oncology focus to hopefully bring some awareness to the very outstanding work and effort that is being done in this country.

How to get started in medical writing

It’s a very small profession, not unlike the PA profession. But there are even fewer medical writers. From my personal anecdotal experience that most practicing clinicians have never even heard of medical writers and what they do. It’s a very small group of people, and the way I got into it was that I reached out to other medical writers. I found them on LinkedIn, through podcasts, and I asked for their advice, and that’s how I got started.

I would recommend joining the organizations. AMWA is the American Medical Writer’s Association. They used to have a Canadian chapter, but that has dissolved, although there are Canadian writers and we are still part of AMWA though we are not part of the official chapter, which gets into the politics of running an organization. They have a lot of resources, they post jobs. They also had the salary survey which I found a lot of value in. When you are coming to this from a side that you don’t know what you should be charging someone.

I work as a freelance writer. You can also work as an employee, but what should you be expecting salary wise? Is this project enough to be supplementing what you would have been making in clinical practice? And, whether the nuances of working in that. AMWA has a lot of help with that, guidance with that. They have some contract negotiating, training in that as well.

An area of writing that I have not conquered, and I am not sure if I ever well is regulatory writing, which are the documents needed submission to Health Canada, FDA, and European equivalent of Drug Approval. These are lengthy, very detailed documents that have a lot of rules and regulations. They have a course dedicated to teaching you that. That would prepare you for getting jobs in that sense.

How to find work as a freelancer in medical writing

Finding work as a freelancer in medical writing is through networking, which is not so easy. I would say that if you had a good networker, you have an advantage over other writers. Most people who are drawn to writing are somewhat introverted. If you are not so afraid to talk and meet with new people, you’ll have an easier time finding jobs. These are typically jobs that are not posted, although you can find some jobs for medical writers. These generally an employee-based thing. I want to be part-time, I don’t want to be an employee. All the jobs I find are through networking.