About Monisha Arya, M.D., MPH: Monisha Arya is the Founder and President of Arya Communications, a company that specializes in copywriting and editing services for medical professionals and organizations. Her work at Arya Communications has demonstrated her wide-ranging content design and development expertise, which encompasses journalistic editorials, policy reports, public health education brochures, biotechnology marketing copy, and educational workshop content for patients and healthcare professionals.
In addition to her work as Founder and President of her own company, Dr. Arya is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), where she also serves as Director of Marketing for the Houston AIDS Education and Training Center. She has won numerous awards for her excellent teaching, including the Outstanding Teaching Award through BCM’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, and the Mentor of the Year Award from BCM’s Department of Medicine Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety. She earned her Bachelor of Science from the University of Maryland, her Master’s in Public Health from The George Washington University, and her M.D. from The George Washington University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have an overview of your professional background and how you became involved in the field of medical communication? In particular, may we have more information on your career as a physician and how you transitioned into medical and public health communication?
[Dr. Monisha Arya] I am formally trained in medicine, public health, and health communications and have spent my career in public health doing health communications work. In fact, I was not pre-med in college. I only went to medical school when I realized–through mentors and experiences working in public health–that having medical knowledge and, frankly, the two degrees (an MD and an MPH), would help me get ahead in public health. I was never hiding that I wanted to make my career in public health. I went to public health school at night during my 4 years of medical school. Do I think everyone needs an MD to excel in public health or health communications: of course not! Everyone’s journey is unique and everyone’s motivations and paths to contribute to society are different. There is no “right” way.
One of the experiences that led me to medical school and public health school was my time in low-income neighborhoods in D.C. serving as a health educator. It was then and there that I knew I wanted to communicate about health and learn how to do it in a way that would resonate with the audience and effect behavior change. Sometime later I saw an article in a glossy magazine that was about “Women and Sex.” The article included survey questions such as, “Do you know where your g-spot is?” “How many partners have you had?” I was appalled that there were no questions about HIV or STD prevention. In fact, I sent a letter to the editor of that magazine. While I recognize that the magazine’s interest was to sell magazines and not be a “Debbie Downer” for sex, I still felt this was a missed media opportunity to empower women to enjoy sex while staying safe. This magazine article was most certainly the “beacon” that determined the next 15 years of my education and career.
After my years in D.C. for education and working in health policy, I got specialized medical training in infectious diseases at Harvard. As part of my fellowship training, I had two years that I could devote to research. I knew I wanted to develop media campaigns to educate women about HIV prevention. I vividly recall meeting with my fellowship Program Director, Dr. Sonia Nagy Chimienti, and telling her about this wish and her responding with, “Monisha, that’s great. But we are infectious disease doctors, we don’t know how to mentor you in designing media campaigns. If you can find mentors and propose a project, we will support you.”
I spent the next several months doing a lot of meet-n-greets in Boston. I met with staff at HIV service organizations, and I met with academics in public health at the many Boston institutions of higher education. I read about national HIV campaigns, such as the one supported by the makeup company, MAC. Eventually, I landed in the office of Dr. K. Vish Viswanath, then Chair of the Health Communications program at the Harvard School of Public Health and a world-renowned health communications expert. I told him about my background, passions, and goals. He said, “Monisha, I don’t know much about HIV since my work has been in cancer prevention, but I do know about designing and evaluating health campaigns. I would be happy to mentor you.” Dr. Viswanath taking a chance on me as a mentee was the start of my career in health communications and health campaign design. I am also so thankful to Dr. Nagy Chimenti for letting me explore “outside the box” of clinical infectious diseases and thankful to Dr. Viswanath for taking me under his wing.
For the next 15 years, with excellent mentors guiding me, I competed for and was awarded grants to support the design and evaluation of campaigns to improve HIV screening in underserved communities in Boston and, eventually, Houston, where I am now. I had a blast working with and mentoring countless undergraduate students in health communications principles, theory, and practice and am forever grateful to my mentees for helping me think outside the box to design innovative campaigns.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are also the Founder and President of Arya Communications, a consulting company that works on myriad medical communications for a wide range of organizations. Can you elaborate on the story behind your company? What motivated you to establish your own company, and what have been some of your most memorable experiences thus far?
[Dr. Monisha Arya] About 3 years ago, I decided to start my own communications consulting company. I was no longer challenged by the grant, research, and publish cycle. Frankly, academia moved too slowly for me. I now use my experience and expertise in medicine, health communications, health campaign design, and marketing to serve as a marketing consultant in the healthcare space. I help health professionals, non-profit public health organizations, and the biotech industry communicate about health.
I love the diversity of clients and projects that are on my plate right now and am blessed that my expertise and passion are being valued. I still design health campaigns and, in fact, won a Society for Health Communications “design jam” in May 2021 for an HPV vaccination campaign.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Throughout your professional journey, you proactively combined medical practice, communication research, patient and practitioner education, and communication/campaign development. For individuals who would like to work in health communication, what advice do you have for them in terms of entering and excelling in the field? Are there certain prerequisites that you would urge prospective medical writers to have before applying for medical writing positions?
[Dr. Monisha Arya] My advice to anyone looking to develop or grow a career in health communications: (1) mentoring matters and (2) think outside the box. Mentoring doesn’t have to be in the halls of academia. There are small boutique agencies that help private and government clients with health campaign design or development of health education materials. The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries need to design campaigns about health and need written materials about their products. Your local public health department develops health campaigns for their community and works with local media to get information out to the community. If you are in academics, your institution may have a strong marketing department with a division for health; you could help them write blog posts or press releases.
You create your life’s journey; no one else does. Your path will be different from my path. There is no right path. I think too many people are trapped in the college level of thinking that there is a right path from A to B to C, but it might not be linear. Not all paths are straight, so dare to peek outside your box to create a journey that fulfills you.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are a Professional Member the Society for Health Communication, the American Marketing Association, and the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. Moreover, you served as Social Media Coordinator and Co-Director at Large for the Southwest Chapter of AMWA. How has your work within AMWA and your membership at these professional organizations enhanced your career?
[Dr. Monisha Arya] Joining professional societies is a great way to learn more about your field, find “birds of a feather,” find mentors, and even find collaborators! Through my membership and leadership roles in the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), I met in person (local chapter happy hours and educational events) and virtually (pandemic times) people who had career paths that intrigued me. I was so pleasantly surprised that these same people were open to brainstorming with me. In fact, they became my biggest cheerleaders when I wanted to take my professional journey down new twists and turns. One AMWA member is now a collaborator on my Arya Communications team. I enjoyed seeing her content on social media and asked her if she could be the editor for a book I recently wrote and published about medical writing. She also reached out to me to offer me a paid opportunity.
As a Member of the American Marketing Association (AMA), I learned different health communications and marketing skills by attending their excellent free and paid workshops. As a Member of the Society for Health Communication, I attended their thought-provoking national conferences and participated in group health campaign design events virtually, which expanded my network of amazing health communications people. I have stayed in contact (through both email and LinkedIn) with two Society people from a recent health campaign design event. One I may even hire as a freelancer to help Arya Communications!
[MastersinCommunications.com] Throughout your career, you have had great mentors who encouraged you to forge your own professional path within medical communication and health education. For students who are seeking similar mentorship opportunities, where do you recommend they search, and do you have any advice for establishing potential mentorship connections?
[Dr. Monisha Arya] First, students should join national (and local chapter) professional organizations that are in the medical writing, health communications, and medical communications fields. For students interested in health communications, I suggest the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), American Marketing Association (AMA), Association for Women in Communications (AWC), and Society of Health Communications. Oftentimes there are free or discounted student memberships. You can also ask their membership staff if they could offer a student discount. I suggest students actively follow these organizations by joining email listservs and all the social media platforms these organizations use. It is never too early to join a professional organization. Don’t miss opportunities to learn, network, grow, and push yourself out of your box. In these new “virtual” times, you can have an amazing network of cheerleaders if you put yourself out there and ask questions and engage.
These professional organizations host events throughout the year. With any of these professional organizations, it takes more than just being a member and writing that you are a member on your CV or resume. To really break into the field, it requires attending events hosted by these professional associations and actively engaging with other attendees. While these professional associations may have local chapters, students usually can attend events that are hosted by other regions because most events are virtual these days. Students should not shy away if a chapter is not in their region because now in this virtual world you can attend. For example, I attended AMWA’s Florida online events even though I do not live there.
By attending events, students can meet people who are doing something that they want to do, learn about career paths they may not have thought of, and form connections across the nation. I recommend when students meet a professional with a background that is compelling to them, or matches what they want to do, that they message that individual for an in-person or virtual meeting. There is no need to be shy as the people who attend these events are usually willing to share and connect.
I also strongly believe that you have to promote yourself. Students have to boldly contact the people whom they want as their mentors because no one is going to find you in a sea of students. To get ahead in the field of health communications, it takes work and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Social media is another tool that can help students find mentors and learn new skills. Social media can help students engage with others that are in their field, and in some cases these social media peers can become your colleagues or collaborators. Students should build a social media presence by sharing what they are working on that is related to medical communications, even if it is a class project. They could share a few words about their class project and what it means to them. If they are members of extracurricular organizations related to communications or health, they could share their experiences with those organizations in order to pique peers’ interest and connect.
Part of being on social media is just building your brand and constantly talking about things that are important to you so other people can see who you are and what motivates you. You need to put yourself out there or else no one is going to know who you are. Professional use of social media can help build your career: like people’s posts, comment on their posts, or ask questions. I cannot emphasize enough about how important LinkedIn and Twitter are for professionals.
Many organizations have internships for students. They are going to select students that have engaged with them on social media or have a social media brand that demonstrates how they communicate and what in the medical communications field they are passionate about. You don’t put yourself out there when you are looking for a job. Instead, you consistently and constantly put yourself out there so that when you are ready for your next job, it is there. People say this on Twitter all the time and I agree: a resume is outdated. People get to know you through your social media rather than your resume. They want to know your flavor, talents, and passions.
If you decide to be active on Twitter, you can connect with different communities. I belong to a group called Freelance Chat that meets every Thursday. It’s #FreelanceChat because we are a group of freelancers that go on Twitter for an hour to chat with each other. A moderator leads us through a discussion on different topics. We learn from each other and support each other. I feel that these people on Twitter are really my friends, I feel that connected to them. We all build each other up because we are freelancers, which is a referral-based life. If someone likes your work and they recommend you to the next person, it continues to lead to more work. These opportunities happen because I put myself out there and people see how I can help them.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What communication principles do you believe underpin all medical communication and public health education campaigns, whether they are about HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, diabetes, or other community health issue? How can medical communication professionals create educational content that is at once easy to understand (yet without sacrificing important medical nuances) and actionable?
[Dr. Monisha Arya] The most important principle is knowing the audience. We frequently communicate in a way that does not reach the audience because we are either not connecting with the audience by using jargon or not communicating what the audience cares about most.
For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic taught us a lot about poor communication. In the beginning, we talked about social distancing but no one knew what that meant. Eventually campaigns came out with images of what six feet of social distancing looks like. Understanding the audience is the crux of good communication. Segment your audience, since groups are not homogeneous. For example, if we are designing a public mask mandate campaign, the message has to be different for a 16-year-old girl compared to a 52-year-old mother because their values are different and what “moves them” emotionally is different. The language a 52-year-old woman uses compared to a 16-year-old teenage girl uses is also different.
In order to better understand your audience, one approach is to use focus groups with members of your target audience. Another method is looking up national data. CDC, Pew Research Center, and Kaiser Family Foundation have datasets and research that can help you understand your audience and develop better health campaigns. However, nothing is as good as meeting with a focus group in your own community. If you are developing a local campaign for middle-aged adults, then a focus group with middle-aged members from your community is the best approach.
It is very important to get the focus groups’ ideas or reactions to your ideas in order to see if your messages resonate with them. Do they understand your message? What question do they have about the message? Would they do what the message is telling them to do? Why or why not? What are their suggestions for making a better message? My team and I used focus groups when we developed our HIV testing campaign. We had focus groups of people to select the messages that resonated the most with them.
[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. Monisha Arya] One barrier is thinking that you cannot do something because no one else is doing it. To overcome this challenge, we have to break through this mindset and realize that if there is something you are really passionate about, then it is dependent on you to find who can help you learn the necessary skills.
For instance, a colleague told me that it was great that I wanted to develop media campaigns but that infectious disease doctors do not create media campaigns and do not know how to design them. The challenge for me was to realize that media campaigns are something I really wanted to do and to find a way to do it. There is someone doing what you want to do; they just might not be in your immediate circle.
It is dependent on you to build your network, and COVID-19 has made it easier because many things are virtual. You can have a mentor at Stanford even if you are located at University of South Florida. Ultimately, you have to invest the time in finding the right mentor because you are investing in your career and future. I was going door to door in Boston for months trying to find a mentor. People wanted to mentor me, but it wasn’t the right fit. It took meeting a lot of people to realize what skills I needed and wanted in order to find the right mentor. Eventually, I found Dr. Viswanath because someone told me that he would be a good mentor for me based on my interests. I caught him at the right time, and now here we are 17 years later.
Thank you, Dr. Monisha Arya, for your excellent insight into the field of medical communication, and for your advice to prospective medical communication professionals regarding how they can step into the field!