About Gail Flores, PhD: Gail Flores is the founder and owner of Encore Biomedical Communications LLC, a medical communications business that specializes in developing customized oncology education content for biotechnology and pharmaceutical professionals. In addition, Dr. Flores is the President of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), a role that enables her to lead a board of directors that make strategic decisions on behalf of the organization and its mission to promote excellence in medical communication and to provide educational resources in support of that goal. Dr. Flores has also served as an Instructor for the University of California, Berkeley Extension, where she taught a course on genetics, as well as a writer for ScienceMedia, Inc. She received her PhD in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychobiology.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have an overview of your professional background and how you became involved in the field of medical communication?
[Dr. Gail Flores] I had no idea that medical writing existed before I entered the field! Keep in mind I started in 2000, a different world. I grew up in a family of scientists, yet was always drawn to writing in addition to biology. Of five siblings who all went on to get advanced degrees in science, I was the only one who did well in English. As a graduate student pursuing a PhD in molecular biology, I realized than rather than doing the science, I preferred learning about and communicating the science through papers, presentations, and teaching. I became the de facto person in my PhD thesis laboratory to review and edit others’ proposals and papers, and I created the slide decks that my thesis advisor presented at conferences.
When I completed my PhD, I started looking for opportunities where I could marry my love of science and communication. My first job after graduate school was at a science communications company, where I wrote e-learning storyboards for online high school AP biology and chemistry courses. A chance encounter at a social event connected me with a medical writer who developed educational backgrounders for pharmaceutical and biotechnology sales representatives. I sent my CV to her boss the next day, and got my first gig as a medical writer the next week.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are the founder and owner of Encore Biomedical Communications LLC. What types of projects do you develop for clients? Could you also elaborate on your experience starting your own business, and the advice you’d give medical writers seeking to build a consulting business of their own in today’s medical writing industry?
[Dr. Gail Flores] Encore Biomedical Communications LLC specializes in oncology, and specifically in educational materials for pharmaceutical and biotechnology sales representatives and medical science liaisons (MSLs). Both sales representatives and MSLs meet with physicians to discuss and answer questions about therapeutics, most commonly when they are first introduced to the market. Thus, they need customized educational materials that allow them to have fluency with regard to a given disease state and therapeutic marketplace, as well as with clinical trial data.
With cancer remaining a leading cause of death in the US and dozens of new agents approved by the FDA each year, there is a constant need for customized learning systems. The role of the medical writer is to break down complicated content into an understandable and relevant format. If it wasn’t for us, sales representatives and MSLs would need to learn everything from textbooks and journal articles, which is neither practical nor valuable.
My direct clients are medical communications agencies (medcomms); their clients are pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. For a product launch, medcomms will assemble a team of writers, editors, graphic artists, medical illustrators, fact checkers, and others to develop learning systems that include self-study modules, live training, and workshops in collaboration with the sales training/medical affairs, medical, legal, and regulatory branches of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology company. Since they usually develop initial outlines, medical writers play a key role in shaping the content from the beginning of the project.
My advice to anyone starting out is to treat your freelance business as a true business from the very beginning, even if you have few or no clients. Invest in the tools you need for success, from software to hardware to subscriptions to an accountant. Hire a graphic artist to develop a logo for business cards, email signatures, and LinkedIn and other social media. Use social media to network with other freelancers. And certainly join AMWA, attend functions, and advertise your services in the AMWA Freelance Directory.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For individuals who would like to work in medical writing, what advice do you have for them in terms of entering and excelling in the field? Are there certain prerequisites that you’d urge prospective medical writers to have before applying for medical writing positions?
[Dr. Gail Flores] The advice is easy: networking, networking, networking. When I started in 2000, this meant attending meetings, introducing myself, exchanging business cards, and sending follow-up emails. Today, it’s still that, plus LinkedIn invitations and engagement, online forums, and virtual meetings and networking events.
The easiest way to start networking is to jump in and join organizations and start attending their functions. That can be a big leap for many, but most never regret doing so. AMWA is the premiere medical writing organization in the US (and we have international members as well), and is great for people new to or exploring the field, because they can get education in and meet people who write in many, many areas. Many AMWA members also belong to more specialized organizations, such as regulatory, publishing, and editing organizations.
Regarding prerequisites, there’s no easy way to say this: be a good writer. Many people think they are good writers or that anybody can write, but unless people have told you that, you don’t really know. In that case, I’d recommend taking writing courses or earning AMWA’s Essential Skills certificate.
[MastersinCommunications.com] During your years in the field of medical writing and medical education, how have you seen these fields evolve? Where do you feel medical writing and communication will go in the coming years (especially in light of the ongoing pandemic), and what role will they play in medical care as well as public health initiatives?
[Dr. Gail Flores] The biggest change I’ve seen has been increasingly tightened restrictions, mandated by the FDA, of the content we can include in our educational materials. To be clear, presenting accurate information without “spin” has always been critical, and is an ethical standard that medical writers universally adhere to and honor. However, when I started, it was sufficient to reference an entire paragraph with a single reference, or to just reference numbers and values. Now, every single statement must be clearly linked to a reliable source reference, and the writer must enter the publication (or textbook or website) along with the page/column/paragraph in an annotation, and highlight the associated pdf accordingly.
While the importance of this process is clear, it both changes the writing process and requires writers to have accurate annotating and referencing skills. Furthermore, medcomms must allocate resources for their staff to link and annotate references in dedicated platforms, such as Veeva Vault.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Who have been your primary professional mentors, and how have they supported your development? How important do you feel mentorship is to career growth?
[Dr. Gail Flores] Mentoring programs are the holy grail for medical communicators. While many companies have such programs and others are starting them, there’s somewhat of a lack of formal programs in the industry, and virtually none for freelancers, like myself. My advice to those starting out is to identify people in the industry whom you admire and wish to emulate, and to then connect with them and ask them questions in an appropriate context. Whether that’s on LinkedIn, at in-person or virtual meetings, or by phone/email, depends the relationship.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the principal challenges and barriers you have encountered during your career in medical communication, and how have you addressed them? What advice do you have for others facing similar challenges?
[Dr. Gail Flores] I’ve been so fortunate in my career to not have faced any big challenges, other than underestimating how long a project will take me or working with difficult people. The most insulting thing that ever happened in my career is when I attended a pharmaceutical company advisory board meeting as a medical writer, and a male physician asked me to bring him a cup of coffee (I didn’t). Most of my challenges have resolved with age and wisdom – the older we get, the less likely we are to care what others think about us.
I’ve continually faced the challenge that many friends and family think I don’t have a “real job” because I work at home and they don’t understand what I do. But, my husband, kids, colleagues, clients, and accountant know that my job is indeed “real,” so it doesn’t matter what others think. I also faced the challenges of raising children while freelancing, as well as setting up a freelance business, but those aren’t specific to medical writing.
After all this time, I still get frustrated that when I say “sales training” some assume that I’m involved in egregiously pushing certain drugs on doctors, and the general distrust in “Big Pharma” is also insulting. Not only do I focus on education about life-changing cancer therapeutics, but everybody relies on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry whether getting a vaccine to fight a pandemic, receiving medications after a heart attack, or popping an ibuprofen to relieve a headache.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are currently the President of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and have held numerous positions within the organization over the past five years. In your opinion, how important is it for medical writers to be a part of a professional organization that represents and supports them? How would you advise other professionals in medical communication to stay connected to a larger community for networking and career development purposes?
[Dr. Gail Flores] I think that people in all industries should belong to professional organizations that support them! It’s so important to make connections with people who do the same thing as you, to share ideas and help each other. It’s also important to be able to exchange ideas and solutions with people who don’t do the same thing as you. When I attend AMWA conferences, I get just as much out of my conversations with other freelance sales training writers as I do with employed regulatory document editors.
While medical writing is not unique in this, we have careers that most people don’t really get. At a cocktail party or family reunion, nobody questions what a doctor, pilot, or teacher does for work. For the past 21 years when I tell people I’m a medical writer, the next thing they say is “What’s that?” or “What does that mean?” or “Huh?” In contrast, when I get together with other medical writers, we can quickly move past that and focus on sharing more important things.
Volunteering in an organization is one of the best ways to network, grow, and truly open doors, and volunteering in a leadership position is even better. I’ve always volunteered in leadership with every organization I’ve joined, from my sorority in college to my local Girl Scouts council to AMWA. “The more you put into it, the more you get out of it” totally applies to volunteering. When you volunteer, it’s important to find a good match for your skills, your desires, and your time. Some people prefer doing a lot of volunteer work in a shorter period of time (like planning a conference or preparing an annual budget) while others prefer a smaller amount of work on a regular basis (like planning monthly networking happy hours or managing a database); I’m certainly the latter. Ultimately, I moved into senior leadership in AMWA for the very straightforward reason that after the organization provided so much to me for so many years, I wanted to give back. Glad I did!
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the most helpful professional resources and networks for you in your professional experience, and what communities and resources would you recommend others leverage either while in school or working in the medical communication industry?
[Dr. Gail Flores] I’m sure it comes as no surprise that AMWA has been far and away the most valuable professional resource and network in my career. I can’t imagine anybody starting out in the field without joining AMWA. But joining alone will not be sufficient, one must engage – on the virtual platform and/or at virtual or in-person meetings. Of course, AMWA is not an island, and several other complementary organizations exist to further the career of a medical writer, including the International Society of Publication Planning Professionals (ISMPP) and the Board of Editors of Life Sciences (BELS).
Personally, I belong to the Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network (LTEN), which pertains to my work. Most medical writers I know belong to AMWA and at least 1 other professional organization. I encourage those entering the field to network and ask people in similar roles what organizations they belong to, as the list is endless.
Thank you, Dr. Gail Flores, for your excellent insight into the medical writing profession and your advice regarding how prospective medical writers can enter the field and succeed!