October 16, 2018

Mandy’s Story – From Physician to Medical Writer

MJH Mandy

“What?!? Why?!?” These are the two questions I receive (often simultaneously) when I tell someone that I’m no longer practicing medicine. Many other questions and comments usually follow, such as, “But you spent all that time in school and residency…” Ah, yes. All that time. And training. And debt. Why did I even go to medical school? Good question.

I went to medical school simply because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t do it for the money, and there are no physicians in my family in whose footsteps I needed to follow. I had a great interest in the health sciences, but I could count on one hand the options that I thought were available to me in that field. I had a great GPA and stupidly, I did not question the rather frequent suggestion I received: “You’re smart enough, so you should become a doctor.” Sure, sounds good. I just wish I realized then that just because one can do something, it doesn’t mean one should. Regardless, I was accepted into medical school, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I may have made a mistake. But while I was sitting in a pharmacology lecture in second year, I was thinking, well I can’t quit now – I’ll have too much debt! Plus, what else am I going to do? I have a degree in Biology. No way am I working in a lab for the rest of my life. How little I knew about the possibilities that were open to me.

I did fairly well in med school, then completed residency and fellowship. During residency, I considered other careers a couple of times, but nothing panned out. I pumped myself up for fellowship and actually really enjoyed it. One of my projects that year was to write a book chapter, and I was so surprised at how much I loved it. I was also praised for my hard work and writing abilities. I began to think, I could do this… somehow I need to find a way to write. Then I went on to my first “real” job, which was terribly disappointing because it was nothing like my fellowship. Plus, the business side of practice was new to me, and I had no assistance with any of it (the system was supposed to hire someone but never did). Regardless, I dove into the job headfirst, thinking I could make it better if I tried. I gave lectures, participated in interviews, and met with referring providers. I also started a blog, which was intended to be both informational and entertaining. Once again, I found myself more interested in writing than practicing medicine. And once again, I got great feedback. Although I loved my field, attending conferences, and keeping up with my journals, I simply did not enjoy practicing medicine (for too many other reasons to explain here). I also had a lot of anxiety; this wasn’t something new, but it was getting worse instead of better. Even though I was well trained and competent, I always had thoughts in the back of my head like, “What if I’m missing something?” or “What if there’s a complication after this procedure?” To make things worse, in the first month of practice, a mother casually told me that she would have taken legal action against me if anything had gone wrong in the care of her adolescent child (it didn’t).

After about six months of practice, I started thinking about a change. The anxiety-related GI symptoms, mood swings, difficulty sleeping, and Sunday night dread were definitely wearing on me. It was also wearing on my fiancé (now my husband) and our relationship. Fortunately for me, he was very supportive because he could see how miserable I was. My anxiety and physical manifestations weren’t getting better with time and experience, as I told myself they might. I started exploring my options while saving more of my paycheck, knowing that I would end up leaving this practice, if not clinical medicine entirely. My regular chats with Heather were very helpful, and it made me feel so much better to realize that I was not the only one in this situation. Before then, I’d never known any MDs in non-clinical positions, so I thought there might be something wrong with me. I hate to say it, but I really needed some sort of validation that I wasn’t alone in my dilemma. Once I started reading books (Do You Feel Like You Wasted All That Training by Michael McLaughlin, MD and Non-Clinical Careers For Physicians by Babitsky and Mangraviti), finding websites (www.nonclinicaljobs.com) and group emails (The Drop Out Club), and speaking with MDs in non-clinical positions, I became more confident about my desire to stop practicing. It was then clear to me that I could still use my degree and my training, so I wasn’t “giving up all together.”

I enrolled in a 6-week online writing course for professionals with advanced degrees (including MDs) and submitted my notice of resignation. After I completed the course, I started my own freelance medical writing company. So far, my work has mostly included promotional materials for a large university medical center, conference coverage, medical news writing, feature stories, and CME work. What I love most about freelance medical writing is that I cover fields outside of my own specialty, so I’m always learning something new. Plus, I can set my own schedule, and this work is much less stressful.

Should I have given it more time? Should I have joined another group? Should I have practiced elsewhere with a different patient population? Would I have been happier in another field? The answer to all of these questions is maybe. But I really believe that I would have come to the same conclusion eventually. There were red flags all along, and I ignored them. I don’t regret the course that I’ve taken, because I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. But I am still happy with my decision to pursue non-clinical options.

I left clinical medicine after one year of practice, and I haven’t missed it one bit. So I guess you could say I’m pretty confident that I made the right decision. I don’t always get a great amount of support from friends and family, and at first, that bothered me. But now, I don’t care. I realize that I did what’s right for me, and that’s all that really matters.

 Mandy Armitage, MD, founded Armitage Medical, a medical writing, communications and consulting company.   To visit her website, click here. 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thanks. What a great thoughtful and deeply feeling article. I’ve been out of residency for 5 yrs but feel like I’m just “wasting my time. ” Your symptoms really resonated with me. Glad to know I’m not the only one. Thanks

    • Heather Fork says:

      Thank you very much for your kind response to Mandy’s blog. You certainly are not the only one who is feeling dissatisfied with medicine. Often the brochure we looked at before medical school was a lot glossier than the reality. Take heart in the fact many excellent, caring physicians feel as you do. Good luck with sorting things out and please do keep in touch.

      Heather

  2. Helene Malabed says:

    Thank you Mandy for your post. During my license suspension, I had really questioned whether I wanted to practice medicine again. As you stated and I learned other ways that I could help people with their lives, being a physician in the late ’80s was the only option I knew. As I pursued other venues where I could help people, I also didn’t get much support, to the point it has been depressing me and have not really done anything with my new practice. Knowing that I am not the only one who isn’t getting any encouragement in starting a new career has really made my day, and will be making the switch.
    Thank You!!!!

    • Heather Fork says:

      Helene, thank you very much for your response and sharing some of your own experience. It must have been very tough to have your license suspended. You sound like you really care about people and truly want to help them. Unfortunately many good doctors such as yourself become disheartened by all the challenges in practicing medicine these days. I am glad to hear that you were encouraged by Mandy’s story and will be taking positive steps towards a more satisfying career. Please do let us know how it goes! Heather

  3. Leo Singh says:

    Very interesting story, Mandy. Which online writing course did you do? Can you recommend one? There are so many out there that it is confusing and I have been thinking of writing for a living using my medical experience for some time now. Thanks, Leo

  4. Trusandra Taylor says:

    Dear Mandy,

    Your story greatly inspired me and prompted me write to you. I connected with many of the aspects of your story. First, let me tell you a little about me.

    I am Trusandra Taylor and I live in Philadelphia, PA. I have been a practicing physician since I graduated and completed my residency training in internal medicine in 1984. After completing my residency training, I planned to begin a fellowship program in geriatric medicine, but declined the position and accepted a position as medical director for a residential drug and alcohol program where I was moonlighting. The salary was good and I wanted to buy a house. I didn’t know a lot about what is now recognized as “addiction medicine” at the time that I accepted the position, but I had a good relationship with the executive director who sent me to a conference where I could begin to learn about the field. I subsequently became a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and received extensive training and certification in addiction medicine. The staff at the facility where I worked, treated me very well and I enjoyed my work, feeling fulfilled with career choice. I did not regret turning down the fellowship in geriatric medicine at an academic institution.

    After many years of work in a variety of settings both inpatient and outpatient involving all levels of care for addiction medicine, I began to experience “growing pains” ~ 1998 and began to consider learning about work in the pharmaceutical industry. I attended many conferences and society meetings, but never progressed to the point of taking specific action. During this time I learned about medical writing because of the close connection with the pharmaceutical industry. I joined the American Medical Writers Association and attended a few of their conferences and meetings, but once again steered off course without taking action to make a move or begin deliberate plans for an alternative career. The idea of medical writing resonated with me because although I also always loved science and biology, English, journalism and communications were my favorite subjects in high school and college. Like you I received good feedback about my writing skills. I affectionately recall my time as the girl sports writer, editor and photographer for our high school newspaper.

    My “growing pains” continued and in 2004 I enrolled in a MPH online degree program at UIC to “reconnect”. The program was designed to focus on public health and informatics. Practicing addiction medicine tends to limit your exposure to other aspects of medicine and health care, so I pursued further education in public health and informatics to “broaden my horizons”. Since I graduated in 2007, my public health and informatics training has vastly increased my fund of knowledge and provided some supplemental career related activities and opportunities. I am glad I pursued the additional degree.

    I am now approaching the age of semi-retirement/retirement, but would like to work in some capacity for the next 7-10 years, God willing and if I am in good health. I would like to discontinue work involving direct patient care within the next 3 years and consider a part-time career in medical writing and communications. I noticed in your blog, that you mentioned a 6-week online writing course for professionals with advanced degrees (including MDs). Is this course still available? I am very much interested in taking a course for professional writing.

    I also have entrepreneurial interest and fascination involving mobile technology and health and through my informatics training I have learned a lot related to this. My “dream” is to develop some business related activity involving smart phone apps that would supplement my income. I am beginning to learn about the “business” side of this.

    I have begun some preliminary retirement planning, focusing upon identifying incomes streams to support me after I give up my salary. Also importantly, I have begun to do some “self/life” work to help “propel” me along this journey. By this I recognize that I have to stop procrastinating and must commit to take deliberate steps to achieve my goals. At some point, I have to “get off the pot” or else. I also recognize that I have to say “no” to some of the activities that I am presently involved with that take time from allowing me to “dive in” to my new plans. I plan to schedule a consultation with Heather. Aside from the resources you listed in your blog, I would appreciate any additional advice and or thoughts that you may have and look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

    Thanks for the inspiration,
    Trusandra

    Trusandra Taylor, MD, FASAM, MPH

    • Heather Fork says:

      Hello Trusandra,

      Thank you so much for your great comments and sharing your story. You have done a lot with your career and been very resourceful! It’s true as you noted, that one needs to make room for new changes to occur. A funny thing can happen in that once you make the room, letting go of commitments that are no longer serving your goals, a new opportunity can arise out of the blue, as if it were just waiting for the space.

      The writing course you inquired about is Emma Hitt’s 6 week medical writing course. You can find out more information here: http://www.hittmedicalwriting.com/hmw/

      You are wise to be thinking about how to spend the next phase of your career and begin preparing now. Since you have experience branching out in new directions, you know that it does take time and perseverance, and can be very rewarding.

      Good luck to you. Please feel free to contact me to discuss anything further.

      Heather

      • Trusandra Taylor says:

        Dear Heather,

        Thank you for your follow up, comments and advice. I saw the information about Emma Hitt’s online writing course after I sent my message. I am excited about this and plan to enroll for the next course in Jan 2014.

        I will stay in touch.

        Trusandra

        • Heather Fork says:

          You are most welcome Trusandra! Thanks again for the great comments. It is really helpful when someone such as yourself shares your experiences in-depth so others can benefit.

          Best,
          Heather

        • Trusandra,
          It has been a quite a while since your posts but I was wondering if you took the Hitt Medical Writing course and if so, if you feel it was helpful. Did you enroll in the online-only version or the “premium” version, in which Emma Hitt gives you personal guidance, coaching and the option of doing freelance work for her? I’m just not sure the “premium” option is worth it, as it is much more expensive.

          I left Pediatrics after 15 years and I am just beginning to pursue a career in medical writing. I luckily have a degree in journalism, which will most likely be helpful. I appreciate any tips others can share.

          • Heather Fork says:

            Hello Cecily,

            I am not sure if Trusandra will see your post, so I am commenting. A good number of my clients have taken Emma Hitt’s premium course. Most of them have been very happy with it. One of the big differences is that in the interactive course, you gain experience in writing different kinds of documents under real deadlines and you receive feedback and editing on your assignments. You also have a year of support where you can be in touch with Emma. There are a variety of ways to gain experience and training, and Emma’s is very good resource. You could always check out her e-book first and see what you thought. The AMWA conference (American Medical Writer’s Conference)is coming up at the end of the month in San Antonio and they have different resources as well. If you join AMWA, you can go to local chapter meetings in your area and this can be a good networking opportunity with the chance to ask questions of those in different stages of their careers. I hope this helps. Heather

  5. How important is it to be Board Certified in order to become a medical writer? Does a residency training suffice or is Board Certification absolutely necessary?

    • Heather Fork says:

      Hello Neha, thank you for reading Mandy’s post and for your good questions. Many medical writers are not physicians, but individuals with a background and/or interest in science and medicine. Some do have a PhD or MD, but neither of these degrees are required. It is not necessary to be board certified or to have done a residency either. Depending on the type of writing you are interested in doing, it may be helpful to have completed a residency, but as stated above, it is not a requirement. I hope this helps. Heather

  6. Ten years ago, I used to think I was one of the few who preferred medical writing over actual clinical practice. Now, I think medical writing as a separate career for doctors is becoming more mainstream. May our tribe increase! 🙂

    • Heather Fork says:

      Hello Julien,
      Thank you for reading and responding to Mandy’s blog. Yes, it is interesting to see how many doctors actually have found different ways to use their skills, and medical writing is definitely a growth area. I am glad you found a niche that you like. Your site, madicalschool.com looks very helpful! Great idea. Wishing you all the best.

  7. Dr Spriha Mathur says:

    wow! i have Exactly the same feeling that u did before u quit medicine!
    hey could you guide me how to take up writing… i am currently doing my residency in anesthesiology. its going to finish this year.
    which course did you take?

  8. Hi,

    Could you give me some idea of income for medical writers?

    Thanks
    Wendy
    Wendy Kirby MD

    • Hi Wendy, medical writers who work in an employed position make on average $75K – $150K, with higher incomes possible for those with more experience and in pharma/regulatory writing. For freelancers who work full-time, the range is similar, but of course depends the type of writing, expertise and reputation. You can look at the American Medical Writer’s Association Salary Survey for 2015 by clicking here:

      http://www.amwa.org/content.asp?admin=Y&contentid=341

      Thanks for reading on The Doctor’s Crossing!

  9. Hello everyone,

    thank you all for sharing your experiences online.
    I have decided to take a break from medicine and science after 2 years of residency in internal medicine in Switzerland and a disappointing PhD attempt in applied neuroscience in Germany ( I am German ). I have been living and working as an artist for over a year now but slowly need to look for ways to supplement my income with freelance, ideally location-independent work.
    Do you know of any other alternative, possibly online career options for physicians ?
    I am a writer, but to be quite honest, not very interested in writing long, dry EMA application dossiers.
    The absurd amount of bureaucracy in clinical medicine was the reason I discontinued my residency in the first place.

    On a side note, isn’t it interesting how many physicians here report a lack of family and community support when they decided to finally do what they really wanted, instead of following the path that was laid out for them?
    Isn’t there an interesting imbalance in between our positions and influence in society as opinion leaders
    and authority figures and the very evident lack of self-confidence when it comes to our own wishes, job-fulfilment, mental and physical health ?
    How can we confidently look a patient in the eye and tell him that he needs to reduce stress, while we are continuing to work in a fashion that makes our profession no.1 in a number of stress-related occupational diseases ? By just shrugging it off, accepting it as an inbuilt flaw in the system and telling the next generation of residents to stay overnight (mine) ?!
    Do 24h shifts really benefit anyone? Do we need 80+h work weeks?! No !
    Please excuse my little rant, but I guess I am still seriously frustrated with how few physicians stand up for their own and, or the health and well-being of their colleagues, while the problems are so obvious.
    The question is are we educated to be independent thinkers or simply to regurgitate and reapply scientific knowledge in a given system and setting?
    I deeply care about humanity but am dreading the thought of having to go back to this kind of clinical medicine just to make a living.

    Just as a little goodie : Some interesting thoughts about the future of medicine how it could be (give it 5 min) : https://www.smacc.net.au/2016/09/emergency-medicine-the-big-issues/ .

    • Hello Marc, thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts on the state of affairs in medicine. You are absolutely right in that there is a lot of hypocrisy in that physicians often are leading unhealthy lives in order to provide health care to others, especially during training. You asked about alternatives, possibly on-line careers for physicians. I don’t know how things are in Germany/Switzerland, but in the US, if a physician completes residency, there are more options for non-clinical work, and if he or she becomes board certified and practices for 3 – 5 years, there are many more options. Working remotely in health insurance, life and disabilty insurance, for pharma, as a physician advisor, etc, all are possible IF one has completed a residency, and often board certified is required. If you are able to return to residency and finish, you may have more options and for better pay down the road if you can persevere. Maybe there is some way you can combine your talent in art in some fashion?

  10. Hope Johnston says:

    Dear Mandy, and all,

    I have nearly completed a physician assistant program, and have yet to see a glimmer of hope in practicing medicine. I come from a family of physicians and PAs, and think I may have made a mistake in following their footsteps. I’ve done well in the program and have job offers, and though I find some joy in connecting with patients, I feel my skills may serve better elsewhere. I have always enjoyed writing and am exploring my options in this field—do you think a title as a PA will limit my credibility too substantially to be taken seriously as a medical writer?

    Thanks

  11. HEATHER FORK says:

    Hello Hope,

    Thank you for your post and question. I am responding here for Mandy. Medical writing in general can be a challenging way to make a living, whether as a staff writer or freelancing. Typical degrees of those who commonly go into medical writing are BA/BS, Masters, PharmD, PhD and MD. Beyond the degree, if you are a very good writer, persistent and have the self-management skills to meet deadlines and network, you could potentially do better than someone else with a different degree. If you are writing in the healthcare arena, having experience as a PA could be very valuable. You might consider working in your field as a PA while exploring medical writing. Those who do well in medical writing are persistent, do a lot of networking, hone their skills and find an area of medical writing that they enjoy and are well-suited for. By searching on LinkedIn, I found a few physician assistants who are also medical writers. They might be good to speak with.
    Good luck!
    Heather

  12. Rudy Trevino says:

    Thanks for pointing someone in the right direction; I was fired from my family practice MD job in a federal facility and have been having no luck at finding work as a consequence. I am definitely going to do the 6 week online writing course thanks.

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