Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Defining and Refining Medical Communication: Competencies, Research, and Theories (Open Session 16)

by Mary Wessling

At Open Session 16 of the annual conference, panel members approached the issue of how to discover the appropriate measurements, and how to construct a program using AMWA resources, that enhance the competency of our members as medical communicators.

David Chernow, a scientific communications consultant for Eli Lilly and Company, described the Medical Writer Competency Model developed by the core team members of the Drug Information Association Medical Writing Special Interest Area Community. This model (I'll call it the DIA model for convenience) was developed by a team of experts from around the world who employ medical writers or who use medical writers as part of their jobs. Overall, the model looked at the knowledge, skills, and behavior that are intrinsic to success as a medical writer, and then in particular, what different categories of jobs in medical writing would demand. The core competency, they agreed, is the ability to tell a scientific story. The model could be used by an individual to assess his or her abilities to enter the field, and also by employers to judge the suitability of applicants for a job they need to fill. It can also be used to train present employees for transitions to other jobs within the organization. David stressed that the model has its limitations, and among them, that it does not prioritize the skills in assessing competency.

Lili Fox Velez, of Towson University, then examined not only the DIA model but also the problems inherent in building any model for competency. She stressed that there are different forms of definition and asked if we, in creating this model, are perhaps looking at idealized definitions. If so, how do we find out what is essential to competency -- are we looking at pieces and not the real sources of competency? She suggested that there are two possible ways to find the answer to that complex question: a qualitative and a quantitative approach. In the qualitative approach, we observe, like an ethnographer, what social behaviors project an atmosphere of competency. In the quantitative approach, we do studies on target audiences to find out where we are in reference to the ideals set up in the DIA model. The object is to discover their preferences as discourse communities: we find out what they are interested in deriving from interactions with medical communicators -- are they really interested in a criticism of how often the passive voice is used in a research publication? She suggested that we in AMWA set up a writing studies group to meet yearly at the annual conference that functions as a network of practitioners, sharing experiences of the past year. In this way, we will begin to sort out what is essential to build competency in medical communication.

Andrew Petto of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Faculty of Biological Sciences, approached the problem of competency from the viewpoint of teaching and showed how the process of teaching students to write well aligns with the project of developing a competency model. The basic procedure in both cases is the same: set up goals, that is, decide what it is we are trying to accomplish for the biomedical writer. What is it that we are going to measure? What are we going to see in the writing that tells us we have been successful in producing a competent medical writer? Finally, when we see what we had hoped to see, then as in any process of testing, we must collect data, and be sure that the variables link cause and effect. He described two studies, the first of which negated the established idea -- he called it a "sacred cow"-- that knowledge of Greek and Latin was correlated with success in absorbing biomedical concepts. The point of the study was to ask, if something is not effective, why do we do it?

Petto described a second and more complex study that challenged students to develop a narrative by following an actual investigation of the spread of communicable diseases and writing weekly about it in different media, 4 to 7 different forms of medical communication. This challenged the students to develop a narrative of what the study was about, why it was important, and who should care about it --all skills applicable to the core competencies of a successful medical communicator. He emphasized that teaching practices, and by extension our efforts in the AMWA curriculum, should be examined empirically for effectiveness, and implement practices shown effective by evidence-based studies.

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