Where to begin?
1. Decide which area of the media you want to work in and are best suited for:
- Crafting evidence-based articles for your peers in a medical journal
- Writing simply and clearly for a lay audience in a national daily or a glossy lifestyle magazine
- Guest expert on a radio show, or taking live phone calls on air
- Script adviser for a medical soap opera
- Writing persuasive promotional or educational material for a pharmaceutical company
- Patience, the ability to think on your feet and an engaging personality for television (be honest!)
2. Do your homework. Before writing, research your audience. Who is the editor you’re writing for? It may be the Editor for opinion pieces but the Features Editor for features. What is the audience for the particular journal or newspaper? Focus on topics they are likely to be interested in and use the language and style they are likely to be most comfortable with.
3. Editors want ideas but unfortunately there are thousands of other journalists and PR people having ideas as well, so ask yourself, particularly for the national media: Is this topical? Is this controversial? Is this special? What difference does my idea make?
4. The financial rewards vary – from about £90 as a studio guest on a Radio 4 medical programme, to up to £500 for a 1000-word article in a glossy lifestyle magazine.
5. Be prepared for rejection. Like J. K. Rowling, one day your time may come, but there are no guarantees in journalism.
6. Do you have the consent of the people you’re writing about, and is what you’re saying 100% true? If so, good. If not, remember medical ethics – and the UK’s libel laws!
7. If you give up medicine to become a full time medical journalist, what will happen to your source of material, to your credibility and to your pension? Most medical journalists find it helps to combine the two.
What the experts say
“If you are looking for fame and fortune then you are almost certainly barking up the wrong tree. Very few doctors earn huge sums and fame is something to be avoided not pursued.” Dr Mark Porter, GP and medical journalist
“Degrees in journalism – a lot invested for a limited return. If you’re serious, the 6 week intensive fast track courses at Brighton and Lambeth are worth considering.” Rob Finch, former Editor, Hospital Doctor
“Your MB BS is a licence to practice medicine, not a free ticket into the world of medical journalism. You are likely to have much more enduring success if you are driven by a fascination for your subject and a love for the process of communicating it clearly and engagingly. So if you find yourself writing for fun, if you get a kick out of explaining something clearly to a patient, or if you’re mysteriously drawn to courses on writing or working in the media, then you’re probably on the right track.” Graham Easton, GP and medical journalist
“A medical background gives you greater legitimacy if you criticize, and it gives you greater influence if you praise.” Dr Richard Horton, The Lancet
“GPs’ pay and pensions are better than those in journalism and our jobs are much more secure. A column in a national newspaper might pay just over £200 and you’ll feel a responsibility to produce accurate, pithy, topical copy, and never miss a deadline or fail to file copy in advance if you’re going on holiday.” Ann Robinson, GP and medical journalist
Working in the media is “a bit like working in casualty. You never know what’s coming through the door.” Dr Carol Cooper, GP and newspaper doctor for the Sun
Medical Journalists Association
Journalism.co.uk – a site for journalists with 18,000 subscribers
Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – a comprehensive directory of media contacts, plus information and advice.
Among the many medical journals in the UK, the BMJ, Lancet, Doctor, Pulse and BMA News are some of the main weekly publications, and probably the nearest you will get to working on a conventional newspaper.