‘There are many versions of what is truth out there’ –
Michelle Guillemard about her passion for medical writing and providing better healthcare communication
Michelle Guillemard is a freelance health writer and a strong advocate of the freelance writing industry. She has worked for medical journals, hospitals, government health organisations and health insurers. She also loves to share and pass on her knowledge about high quality writing techniques. To teach beginners in the field of medical writing she has set up her own company https://www.healthwriterhub.com/.
CV: What did you want to become when you were younger?
MG: When I was a teenager I wanted to be a music journalist.
CV: But instead of becoming a music journalist you successfully established yourself in the field of health writing. That’s quite a different direction. How did you get there?
MG: My degree was a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Media Communications at Melbourne University. In my third year I was the editor of the student paper there. That added an extra year to my degree. In my final year I did my internship at Rolling Stone magazine, as I was still interested in writing about music. After finishing my degree I went travelling for a few years and did a bit of freelance writing on the side. My first employed writing job was as a travel copywriter.
CV: Travel writing sounds like the dream job of many. But you didn’t stay in this industry for very long. What happened?
MG: It was a really fun industry to be in. Travel journalism and travel writing is still quite a difference. I worked for a company that organized adventure tours. I wrote their tour itineraries and a lot of their marketing copies and I did get to travel for free. I moved to London with them and worked in the company for a couple of years. After this time I felt like trying something new. A position with the British Medical Journal came up and I took on this opportunity. It was pretty much a coincidence that I started working in the health industry.
CV: Health professionals are famous for their use of medical jargon that can be difficult to understand for the lay person. Was it difficult to work in the health industry without having a medical background to rely on?
MG: It is my job to get medical knowledge across to the general public. Therefore it was probably a good thing not to have a health background, as I have an understanding of what the general public would understand and what they would have difficulties with. Over the years I worked a lot on understanding consumer behaviour. I studied the outcomes of health communication research to figure out how patients like to be communicated with and what actually works when trying to get them to follow public health messages and medical instructions. I find the public health sector fascinating. I am passionate about creating better health outcomes and I believe that you can change lives to the better by using effective healthcare communication. I actually find it the best industry to be a writer in.
CV: Eventually you returned to Australia and started your freelancing business in the health sector. How has this experience been for you?
MG: I started freelance writing about seven years ago. My experience has always been amazing. Thus I am a big advocate for freelancing and I teach freelancing courses and workshops within the scope of my company, the “Health Writer Hub”. I am convinced that being a freelance writer doesn’t have to be difficult if you put the right systems in place. But it is also true that it can be challenging and hard work. It certainly does not suit every personality type, as you have to spend a lot of time on non-writing related tasks such as finding and retaining clients and dealing with contracts and invoices. I still believe that the future is freelance writing. The field of medical writing is particularly promising. There is a clear industry trend towards hiring contractors. This is where we come in. There are so many new and already established businesses in the healthcare sector that all need marketing and website content, newsletters and consumer touchpoints. The opportunities are truly plentiful.
CV: Do you think the market for medical writing will be satisfied any time soon with many new writers currently entering the stage?
MG: No, I don’t think so. The medical sector offers so much scope. There are new businesses starting up all the time that need writers. Traditional formats like journalism and medical news reporting might be declining. But the need for other forms like service-based writing, patient education websites and copy writing are still growing. The industry is in no danger slowing down any time soon.
CV: You contributed to several award-winning health care projects. Do you have any favourites you particularly liked working for?
MG: The project I am most proud of is the St. Vincent hospital heart health website. That was an amazing project to work for especially because of the team of absolutely wonderful people. They were a very knowledgeable, inspiring and pro-active bunch. I also found the subject matter fascinating. The purpose of the website was to help people who were newly diagnosed with heart conditions or who were recovering from heart surgery understand heart health content. I really enjoyed that. And it has helped a lot of people on their heart health journeys.
CV: One of your goals is improving health literacy. Do you feel like this has improved in Australia and the UK due to ‘Dr Google’ and other easily accessible online resources? Does the overload of information come with drawbacks?
MG: I think that people are more aware of general health topics and concerns because they have more exposure to it. But this also comes with misinformation. There are many versions of what is truth out there. That makes it a double-edged sword. It is great that people are more aware of aspects of individual and public health. But they are getting such a vast amount of often inconsistent information that it is challenging for them to decide what is actually true and what isn’t. Everyone has their own ways to do that. Scientists look at fact and evidence, whereas the general public relies on emotions, anecdotes and believes. This situation provides large challenges for those in charge of public health education.
CV: You set up your business, the ‘Health Writer Hub’, in 2014. You offer courses to teach people how to become good medical writers. How was this experience for you?
MG: I never planned to have a teaching business. How this all happened was as follows: I had a client who asked me to provide her with some writing coaching. I declined as I didn’t think this was my focus. But the client insisted that I helped her. And that’s how I got the idea of developing a course on teaching people effective health writing strategies. I worked with other freelance writers over the years and I realized that they were struggling with the same challenges. And from there my business grew, as there was a demand for it. I have been really enjoying this experience. I love writing about health, helping people improve their own writing and share what I know.
CV: You are also the president of the Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA). Its annual conference will start on Thursday, August 23th. For everyone who hasn’t heard of it, what does AMWA offer to its members?
MG: AMWA is the peak body for health communication in Australia and New Zealand. It’s a non-for profit association and everybody who is involved is a volunteer. We work for AMWA because we love our medical writing community. We want to bring everyone together and make sure that the community thrives. Our annual conference is our main event. In addition, we hold networking events in different states in Australia throughout the year. We also organize online webinars where we choose a medical communication topic and do online training. We also send out a regular newsletter including industry training and other events that are going on in the field every couple of months. We also send out job postings and freelancers’ directories to make their profile seen by the communities. People find a lot of work this way. We have about 300 members of a mix of different experience levels and professions. We try to cater to all of them. We also offer an ongoing mentoring program. New members can choose a mentor from our webpage. That programs goes quite well. A lot of people have similar questions and can choose a mentor with a similar career path.
CV: What is your advice for beginners in medical writing?
MG: I am a big fan of planning goals and directions. So, I get a lot of people emailing me how to get started. To start with you need to really know, what you are trying to achieve as a medical writer. Do you want to work as a freelance or employed writer? Who do you want to work for? What type of writing do you want to do? You need to narrow your focus at the beginning to make sure you have the best chance of achieving your goals. There are many ways to become a medical writer. If you talk to anyone at AMWA you will see that we all started in the field in very different ways. A lot of people enter the field either accidentally like I did or they just end up in it without having it planned. But this is changing. Now we see people who do plan and who want to consciously enter the field. Have a plan and a vision what you want. You can’t get there if you don’t know where you are going.