All professions have bad habits (or habits that have been accused of being such): Graphic designers charge too little for freelance projects. Programmers take any excuse to avoid writing documentation. Doctors perform routine cancer screening on people with less than 10 years’ life expectancy.
Professional bad habits can compromise the effectiveness and efficiency of our work.
And when you’re in a field that deals so closely with human lives — like medical writing — the repercussions of compromised work quality can be far-reaching.
Having said that, we list below some bad habits of medical writers — three of which are based on AMA Manual of Style guidelines — so that we can begin to avoid them:
1. Calling study participants “subjects”
“Subjects” — what a ghastly medieval term.
Subjects are people who, through no fault of their own, were forced to live their entire lives in subjugation and servitude under monarchs who, through no merit of their own, were born into unfair privilege.
Study participants are not subjects. They have the liberty to choose whether or not they would be part of these studies.
Subjects, on the other hand, sound like hamsters in a cage. (The AMA Manual of Style warns: “Some consider subject to be impersonal, even derogatory.”)
Admittedly there are times when people become part of studies without their explicit consent. Their data were collected retrospectively through a review of their medical records.
In that case, they are called patients.
So please, let’s stop saying “subjects,” unless we’re using it as a synonym for “topics.”
2. Saying “comply” instead of “adhere”
“Comply” is what you do when your boss tells you that you need to work overtime to meet an important client deadline on the night you are scheduled to celebrate your first wedding anniversary.
Nobody likes to “comply.” The word simply leaves a bad taste in the mouth. When we are told to comply, our knee-jerk response is, “Make me!”
But why make disease treatment more difficult than it already is? Why use words that provoke the perverse nature that lies in the heart of each of us?
“Adhere” is much more respectful and palatable. According to the AMA Manual of Style, the term is “intended to be nonjudgmental, a statement of fact rather than of blame.”
In contrast, “noncompliance” is said to connote “a stigmatizing image of rule, enforcement, and control; dominance and submission.”
To be fair, the AMA Manual of Style does cite one instance in which “comply” may be the more correct term to use: When a patient with severe mental illness has been ordered by a court of law to undergo therapy, then that patient should comply.
3. Using foreign terms when there is an equally suitable English counterpart
We can’t deny it forever: as writers, we find special joy and beauty in writing in vivo instead of the bland and plain “animal study” or “human research.”
“Ooh, I’m speaking doctorese,” the mind secretly thrills.
Unfortunately, when we use Latin terms, it’s a good bet that some of our readers will not understand what we’re saying.
That’s never a good thing. But it’s especially dangerous in biomedical writing, when mistaken interpretations can mean the difference between life and death.
Now you may be asking, what kind of doctor ever gets confused between in vivo and in vitro? Or between qid, qod, and qd, right?
We’re writing for doctors, aren’t we?
This brings us to the fourth and most important bad habit that medical writers should get rid of:
4. Not writing for the patient
(This one is purely based on my own opinion and is not from the AMA Manual of Style. But please, hear me out.)
Because we have the word “medical” in our job title, we tend think we are writing for healthcare professionals alone.
But who do we think our most engaged readers will be?
Is it the 50-or-so individuals with double PhDs in the severely niched topic of our original article?
Or is it the doctors burning with passion to save as many lives as they can?
No. Our most engaged readers will be patients and their caregivers. It is:
- The blissfully newlywed couple who has just been told that one of them has metastatic cancer.
- The father desperately searching for information to save his child with a rare disorder that has left all local doctors stumped with regard to treatment.
- The mother raging with all her strength against an aggressive degenerative disease, determined to see her children through their teenage years.
For healthcare professionals, the articles we write will always be just one of many that they feel compelled to scan for professional reasons.
Laymen, on the other hand, would struggle painfully but determinedly through our 3,000 words in the hope that at the end they would find that piece of knowledge that their doctor just might have overlooked — the miracle that might save their own or their loved ones’ life.
When laymen read our articles, we have the chance to touch someone’s life and perhaps even save it.
But that won’t happen if we carelessly use the term in vitro and they mistakenly interpret it as proof that something is effective and safe for human use.