Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Heart and Soul of AMWA

"AMWA has given me opportunities to learn from the best. I still remember the very first workshop I took: It was 1981, the annual conference in Toronto, and Guy Whitehead taught me more about tables and graphs than I thought possible. I went on to take a lot more workshops and attend open sessions, networking breakfasts, and awards luncheons much like the ones here this week. Over the years, my appreciation has grown for the efforts of all the volunteers but especially the workshop leaders who give so freely of their time and talents. Education is the heart of AMWA’s mission and these volunteers are its soul."
Barbara Snyder, AMWA's new president, at the annual business meeting

Friday, October 21, 2011

Poster Presentations

Poster presentation session Friday morning. Sandra Ripley Distelhorst describes her poster, "Developing Consensus Manuscripts: From Planning to Publishing."

Who Knew Theory Was So Popular?

by Lori Alexander

In an organization as practice-oriented as AMWA, the audience at Thursday morning’s “Using Composition and Persuasion Theories to Improve Your Medical Writing” was extraordinary. Panelists Tom Lang, Helen Hodgson, and Dan Jones had estimated that the topic would draw about 50 attendees, especially considering the always-strong competition among open sessions. All of us were pleasantly surprised to see a standing room–only crowd fill the enormous room!

Tom discussed the evidence base for writing, highlighting the importance of two documents: Document Design: A Review of the Relevant Research and Guidelines for Document Designers. Tom provided an overview of the importance of language usage and framing, a practice that he referred to as the “real ethics problem” for medical writers (above authorship issues, even!). He described framing as a form of cognitive bias in which the context organizes perception. As a classic example of framing, he noted that people are more likely to choose a procedure that has a survival rate of 85% than one that has a fatality rate of 15%.

Helen summarized several composition theories, noting how medical writers can use the theories to evaluate their own work. For example, in critical/cultural studies, researchers examine systemic and cultural injustices inflicted by dominant social groups on those with less power (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc) and read texts carefully to determine how language and structure reinforce the power dynamics. “As medical writers, you need to be aware of these issues, and modify writing to redress the power imbalance and reflect understanding of the discourse community,” she said.

Rounding out the session was Dan Jones’ discussion of contemporary persuasion strategies that medical writers can use to reach consensus in the workplace. Dan focused on the science of persuasion—specific strategies that have been scientifically proven to be effective. Among the most widely used are six weapons or principles of influence described by Robert Cialdini: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Dan encouraged attendees to think about how to put these principles into action not only in their writing but in their workplace relationships.

2011 AMWA Salary Survey (Open Session 6)

by Karamarie Fecho

If there’s one thing that all medical writers have in common, it’s the need to earn a living. We may be passionate about our writing, but passion doesn’t pay the bills. The much-anticipated results of the 2011 AMWA Salary Survey were released Thursday afternoon during a presentation by Susan Bairnsfather at the annual AMWA meeting.

After listening to the presentation, I have to say that, quite frankly, AMWA’s members appear to be weathering the economic downturn very well and, dare I say, even thriving. Both traditional business employees and freelancers, part-time and full-time, showed an increase in their annual income from 2007 (the last year the salary survey was administered) to 2011. The increase in employee income was ahead of the inflation rate—12.9% vs. 1.3%.

While US government–reported inflation rates are admittedly low and do not reflect true purchasing power (a point raised by a participant at the presentation), the reported increase in salary was large enough that one could infer that, at the very least, medical writers are faring well in these tough economic times. Interestingly, however, the feeling among many who listened to the presentation was one of caution regarding interpretation of the survey results. Several people pointed out that the survey response rate was down by 10% and that the survey itself did not “capture” unemployed (or even underemployed) medical writers.

Whether these concerns are warranted or the result of an internalization of the economic situation is unclear. It is true, however, that the survey, like most surveys, had limitations, including the low response rate and a lack of survey participation by employees whose employers (primarily pharmaceutical companies) prohibited them from responding to the survey. Regardless of these (admittedly valid) concerns, this presentation left me feeling a renewed sense of validation for my profession and my profession’s economic worth.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Should the Skull Be an Inviolable Zone of Privacy?

Keynote Speaker Focuses on Bioethics

by Faith Reidenbach

“We are becoming cyborgs,” one of the founders of neuroethics, Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, told the large audience assembled for his keynote address on Thursday morning. He wasn’t playing on the fact that AMWA’s conference falls near Halloween this year. As an increasing number of people use artificial organs to survive, prosthetic limbs to move, or brain waves to communicate, we are becoming “semicreated creatures,” Dr. Wolpe said, and the accelerating pace of these advances “may induce a phase change beyond which we can predict nothing.”

By juxtaposing photos, Dr. Wolpe demonstrated that a real-life woman who has a brain implant for a neurologic disorder looks remarkably like Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Picard after he was assimilated by The Borg. And just as Picard discovered when he battled the Borg Queen, “our last great freedom”—the freedom not to reveal the contents of our minds—may someday be in jeopardy. Using functional MRI, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have taken a baby step toward mind reading:  they have shown that they can identify the unique brain activation patterns generated when a person thinks of any one of dozens of nouns. Later, with about 75% accuracy, they determined what noun a person was thinking of, even nouns their computer model had not encountered.

Dr. Wolpe explained that according to other studies, brain imaging can distinguish traits, such as extroversion versus introversion; whether a person has racist attitudes; what languages a prisoner of war can read; a person’s intentions on a very simple level—the intention to add or subtract; and whether a person is more likely than average to engage in violent behavior.

“Should the skull be an inviolable zone of privacy?” he asked. The emerging field of what he calls neuroprivacy exemplifies that ethics is much more than an inquiry into right and wrong. “Ethical consensus is a social, evolving process in which the media plays a primary role.”

Dr. Wolpe also discussed “cosmetic” neurology. Reporting that 20% of scientists acknowledge using a psychostimulant such as Ritalin, Adderall, or modafinil, he posed the question of whether use of this drug class should be required of professionals such as pilots and surgeons. Other examples of cosmetic neurology are the use of propranolol for memory suppression, research by Nobel Laureate Eric Kantel on memory enhancers, and, much more questionably, the use of oxytocin spray as a “trust inducer.” What are the ethical implications of spraying Liquid Trust on flowers given to a girlfriend?

Turning to the hot-button issue of prenatal genetic testing, Dr. Wolpe said he is not opposed, but that scientists should own up to the fact that “it’s eugenics” and talk about how to manage the consequences of the testing. For example, he pointed out, a disease such as cystic fibrosis might be cured by the time a child with the CFTR gene reaches reproductive age; should a fetus with the gene necessarily be aborted?

Medicine will become a “risk management system,” he predicted, with individuals receiving long printouts of their genetic profiles. Not all parts of the profiles will relate to disease; for example, some scientists believe there are genetic markers for criminal behavior. “What do we do with that information?”

In all of these areas, “the science is running way ahead of the ethics,” Dr. Wolpe said. The goal should not be to hurry to arrive at cut-and-dried decisions; rather, what’s needed are “robust ethical conversation with people representing different points of view.”

Dr. Wolpe encouraged listeners to visit the home page of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, which he currently directs. At Emory he is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics; Raymond Schinazi Distinguished Research Professor of Jewish Bioethics; and professor of medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, neuroscience and biological behavior, and sociology. Dr. Wolpe also serves as the senior bioethicist at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). He is co-editor of the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) and editor-in-chief of AJOB‒Neuroscience. He sits on the editorial boards of more than a dozen professional journals in medicine and ethics. Dr. Wolpe is a past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, a fellow of the Hastings Center, and a fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest medical society.

Related Links
Dr. Wolpe's Web page
Dr. Wolpe on "60 Minutes"

The Mission Ahead

“As medical communicators who are part of our profession’s preeminent organization, we must work together to remain true to our mission. We must work hard to build momentum. We must work hard to position our organization as a global thought leader on the most pressing issues of our profession. And we must continue to uphold the highest ethical standards. Thank you for the part you play in support of these noble goals.”

AMWA President Melanie Fridl Ross, in her opening remarks Thursday at the annual conference

AMWA, caricatured

AMWA is meeting this year in a beach town, if not on the beach itself. Lending a bit of the flavor of the beach boardwalk, caricature artists went to work with willing AMWA members at Wednesday night's opening reception. The reception was sponsored by RPS Inc.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Calendar of Events

Here is a Google calendar of events at this year's AMWA conference. If you click on the event, you will see further details and the room locations. Note that this list does not include the 100 workshops! The breakfast roundtables and coffee klatches also are not listed individually.

If you use Google calendar on your smartphone, please feel free to use the whole calendar or simply choose the events that you would like to add. The calendar will remain posted in a sidebar on the blog, so if you are viewing the blog on a computer, you will be seeing double. (On a smartphone, in the mobile version of the site, the sidebar does not display.)

AMWA and Ethics

If you look through the AMWA annual conference program, you may notice one word appearing again and again.


It’s there on the very first page, where AMWA President Melanie Fridl Ross mentions the role of medical communicators in upholding the highest ethical principles

It’s there in the title of the keynote speech: Re-creation: Ethics and the Biotechnological Restructuring of Life, which is to be delivered by Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, a professor of bioethics at Emory University and director of Emory’s Center for Ethics.

There are the open sessions, “Clinical Trial Ethics: Placebos and Other Issues,” and “Publication Ethics: Moving Beyond Authorship.”

There are the workshops:
  • Preparing CME Materials: Concepts, Strategies, and Ethical Issues
  • Ethics of Communicating Regulated Drug Development Activities
  • Ethics for Regulatory and Research Communicators
  • Fundamentals of Ethics and Practical Application
  • Ethics for Science and Medicine Communicators
  • Ethical Standards in Medical Publication

A self-study course “Essential Ethics for Medical Communicators” is also being launched at this conference.

I had an opportunity recently to speak with Cindy Hamilton, a past president of AMWA, who teaches some of the ethics workshops and has been a driving force in AMWA’s increased emphasis on ethics.

Listen to the Audio Interview With Cindy Hamilton.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

AMWA Jacksonville Conference About to Begin

Well, that was fast. It seems like we just wrapped up last year's AMWA conference blog, and now it is time to gear up for the Jacksonville meeting, which gets under way late Wednesday.

A few things to think about before you head to Florida, or in my case, a different part of Florida:

  • Lori Alexander, editor of the AMWA Journal, has a nice post over at her blog mentioning some of the great benefits such as museum discounts that she and the other local arrangements coordinators have made for conference attendees. You can also read about the Florida Chapter's drive to collect donations for Hubbard House, a Jacksonville shelter for victims of domestic violence. 
  • The clock is ticking down on making arrangements for the discounted rate ($16) for the airport shuttle. Reservations must be made 48 hours before arrival to get the discounted rate.
  • Read "Maximize Your Conference Experience" on the AMWA Web site, so that you can, you know, maximize your conference experience.
  • The AMWA Conference blog is always looking for more contributors. If you know how to write, you know how to blog. If you are interested in contributing, please get in touch with me. I edit all posts and take care of getting them up on the blog. In addition to text, I would also be happy to consider photographs, audio, and video contributions. The more voices, the better the blog. E-mail me at 
  • Follow official AMWA tweets at: If you are tweeting about the conference, please use the hashtag #amwa11 so it will be easy for people to find tweets about the conference.