3 May 2001
2,225 words

Conference reporting:
MEN writes tight, objective news reports on medical conferences for doctors
1,500 words in 24 hours, 6,000 words in a week

NEW YORK--Medical Education Network sends doctors quick summaries, and more comprehensive reports, of clinical and research news from medical meetings.

There's plenty of competition, including the Internet, but MEN'S distinctive envelopes have opening rates of "upwards of 30%," said Lisa Bloch , Director of Medical Communications, North America.

Bloch and 2 other MEN editors spoke to the Editorial Freelancers Association medical group on 24 April 2001.

"Our brand has been recognized by physicians," said Steve Blackwelder , Director of CME and Special Projects. "And trusted. So that when they pick it up they don't throw it away."

"The products that we do are basically newsletters," said Shirley W. Schoonover , Manager of Medical Communications. "We'll cover 2 or 3 presentations or a symposium, and get the highlights of the meeting out, usually within 6 to 8 days, in the mail."

MEN's freelance journalists write 2 kinds of single-sponsored newsletters:

All of MEN's products can also be produced in CME forms, by going through the CME process, said Blackwelder.

Hard work, good backup

The main audience is doctors, usually specialists, and the work is demanding and exacting. It's a hard job but preparation makes it easier. MEN's medical advisers and editors understand the clinical issues and can provide you with background material and direction. The pay is reasonable, especially when compared to medical writing for the tabloids or Web. And they're looking for writers.

"We're here to recruit," said Bloch.

"We are interested in meeting people who are on the way up, and want to learn, and want to work hard, and who will be diligent in following our guidelines," said Schoonover.

"Our biggest hole is good European journalists," said Bloch. "They are definitely hard to come by." They are building up people in California, and looking for people on the west coast of Canada. To fill in the holes, they send people across the country.

The best way to get the work is to send a resume with writing samples. (Fax number is (212) 629-8559)

When they call new journalists, it's often an "emergency situation" when their regular writers can't make it, and the lead time is close, admitted Bloch. "We send every bit of backup material we can."

"Persistence is what gets you a job with us," said Bloch. One journalist sends an e-mail every time she goes to a meeting for another client. You can work for somebody else at the same meeting, but you can't rewrite the same work. "We prefer that you use different presentations and other content at the meeting."

Balanced, credible

"We can provide a balanced report," said Bloch. They write within the guidelines of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (although they do not seek FDA approval), and within the guidelines of the Accreditation Council for CME (ACCME) as well.

"We very often report on off-label products or indications that are not approved, or drugs that are nowhere near market, because we can," said Bloch. "We are a third-party independent medical reporting company. We can do that. Pfizer can't do that. None of the pharmaceutical companies can do that without getting their hands slapped."

"But we can do it as long as we report on other products in that therapy category, report other data presented at the meeting, and provide all the necessary financial disclosure," said Bloch. (Clients include all the major drug companies -- Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Abbott, Eli Lilly, Hoffmann La Roche, etc.)

"Some people say what we do is advertising," said Bloch. "We like to call it education. We feel strongly about that. We're staunch supporters of the FDA's never-really-published guidelines of 1994." (The FDA proposed guidelines to regulate pharmaceutical company promotions, but these guidelines were overturned in a Supreme Court case brought by a conservative foundation. For details on this controversy, and CME in general, see my story on an AMWA meeting .)

"We have a medical team of advisers in our department whose job is not only to make sure that the reports are medically accurate and good education but that we're balanced, that we're not only supporting our client's drug," said Bloch. Because if it's touting a drug, "Who's going to read that?"

"We may be reporting for 2 head-to-head competitors," said Bloch. "We consider ourselves to be a news agency. We don't offer our client exclusivity."

"If people think that our work is extensively promotional," said Bloch, "they're not going to open our mail."

Last year MEN mailed 4.2 million pieces of mail, including international audiences and international meetings. They buy mailing lists from medical associations and other sources. But the client doesn't supply the list. "We like to keep it at arm's length," said Schoonover.

Clinical journalism

The writing style is a hybrid of news journalism and academic writing, with a careful selection of features from each one.

"We sign a contract with the journalist," said Schoonover. "He or she will cover the specific meeting for that particular drug. Sometimes you will interview the physician who is making the presentation, sometimes you will go to the poster presentation. You write a 1,600 word report within 24 hours. Then you send it by e-mail to your trusty editor."

"It's balanced stuff," said Schoonover, pulling out one report. "We love it."

"We implore you, when you write for us, please cite your references not only in the text, but then underline the hard copy where you found it," said Schoonover. The bibliography of suggested reading is supplied in-house, she said, by the project editor, "me mostly."

"If you got a direct quote, that's wonderful, because then you cite that in the references, the guy said it," said Schoonover. "And we don't change the direct quote. If it's a direct quote that means the guy said it, whatever bad English he was speaking."

"Our style is quite different from journal writing," said Bloch, who consistently referred to her writers as "journalists". It requires a balance between colloquial style and journal style. It's technical but it's not too technical. "We try to have a newsy flair," she said. They try to tell a story.

But one manuscript came in too "chatty Cathy," said Schoonover, and had to be rewritten.

"Try to entice them," said Schoonover. "Because that's what good journalism is. Go from your top paragraph and just lead them through the story. And the more straightforward in speaking, the better we like it -- as long as it's clinically correct."

The meeting reports are "similar to Medscape," said Bloch. "Although we think we run a tighter ship." (Medscape usually has an MD work with a writer, who also usually has a medical degree.)

No Internet

Many of the medical meetings now have summaries on the Internet. The American Heart Association annual meeting has been fully on-line for 5 years. A doctor can see a writeup the next morning, and sometimes the same night.

"We don't have a site on-line," said Bloch (although they do have an abstract service ). "We haven't seen a need for it and haven't seen it proven that physicians really do hit those Web sites." It may be an add-on. But not yet.

"Our journalists are pretty bright, and pretty knowledgeable," said Schoonover. "They're not MDs. We're not writing to be highly clinical. We're writing reports." Manuscripts are read by medical reviewers with clinical degrees.

The CME products "provide authority and credibility," said Blackwelder. "We have relationships with various CMEs around the country." The CME products go through the same procedure, except for the financial disclosure.

"Some of the pieces I do verge on being medical journal articles," said Blackwelder. They are "highly technical."

"So I want a full-fledged medical writer with a lot of journal experience that works well with doctors," said Blackwelder.

Diabetes report

For example, said Blackwelder, he is now working on a series of meeting reports on the use of high density lipoprotein levels as an indicator of cardiovascular risk in diabetes. They've tried to figure out what the new research is at this meeting. They've gone through the abstracts and program. "We have looked at all the abstracts for the symposia, the preliminary sections, the scientific sessions, the poster presentations," he said, "and we will tell you these are the ones we think are pertinent and look interesting, that will fit in, and be balanced and so forth, and these are the ones that you are to attend."

"Thematically, this is what we consider to be important," said Blackwelder, "and these are some of the areas that we would like in your writing. This is the subject matter that you're going to aim at."

"This is the kernel," said Blackwelder. "You're going to tell one story in this particular piece, because I've got 3 or 4 other pieces coming in," to amplify the story. "They're like chapters."

"We send you a literature search," said Blackwelder. "I'll give you the 4 key articles that have been published over the last 6 months that you have to be aware of." These are the articles that the doctors you'll be speaking to will be talking about. "Listen to the doctors, listen to what they say in the hallway. Listen to what they say in Q&A. "Some writers buttonhole the doctor in the hallway, and ask, "What did you think of that stuff that guy said?"

They often know that a company will be making certain claims for a new drug. "We want to know if you can see any holes in their claims," said Blackwelder. "What are they not saying?" But don't be too aggressive or hostile.

"Our briefings are pretty extensive," said Blackwelder. "A page and a half. We have a purpose."

Medical meeting protocol

"Introduce yourself," said Blackwelder. "Make sure the chairman knows who you are, because they have to know it's being covered. Especially in my position, of CME."

"We may ask you to speak specifically to one of the physicians who's making a presentation," said Schoonover. "We tell you what time of day and where so you can successfully buttonhole the guy." Sometimes you make an appointment.

If the doctor refuses to cooperate, then you drop it. "Most of them are OK," said Schoonover. One reporter sat through 3 presentations by a doctor, "and when it came time to interview him, he already knew her face."

You will often briefly say hello to the product manager, said Schoonover. Just say "Hi, I'm from MEN." Occasionally product managers want to give you "direction," she said. "We prefer the direction come from us." The best way to deal with them is to "yes" them, she said. "Yes, I will be bringing this information back to the editorial group at MEN." "Yes, I will tell them about your concerns."

MEN writers register for the meetings as journalists, so they can work out of the press office. But some societies are tightening up the restrictions on single-sponsored publications, although that can be an arbitrary distinction. Some MEN publications have more than 1 sponsor. Some trade and professional publications are more promotional than MEN.

Started from abstracts database

MEN, 15 years old, was bought 7 years ago by Rogers Communications Inc. , a Canadian multi-media conglomerate with revenues of CN$3 billion (US$2 billion) a year, whose publications include Medical Post and Physicians Financial News .

In Canada, MEN has an affiliate named Medical Information Services. (There was already an unrelated company named Medical Education Network Canada, which also hires freelancers to cover medical meetings for somewhat less, $250 a day; MEN Canada's reports are publicly posted on the Internet.)

Their "mission statement," said Bloch, is to "collect, organize, analyze, interpret and communicate medical information, to provide a marketing advantage to our clients," and of course useful information to physicians.

"We are a database company," said Bloch. "We read thousands and thousands of abstracts, and plug them into our database," from medical meetings like ASCO and the American Heart Association. This database was sold largely to product managers in the pharmaceutical industry, in the U.S. and Europe.

Medline tells you what happened, said Bloch. "We know what's coming up."

The database was "our Trojan horse to get into the client company," said Bloch. "That's how we started." On this base, they moved into writing narrative, journalist-written reports on the meetings.


For another EFA meeting about reporting on medical meetings, see my story on another EFA meeting .


(Main source: WSJ, 26 Apr 2001, "Pharmacia, Bristol-Myers, AHP Enjoy Health Profits; U.S. Prescription-Drug Sales Rise 11%, a Trend That Is Seen Continuing.")

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., American Home Producs Corp., Pharmacia Corp., Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co. all reported "solidly higher quarterly net income," in contrast to other industries. Patents and high drug prices assure high profit margins. The aging population in the industrialized world will keep sales growing. In the first quarter, total prescriptions rose a record 11% compared to last year.

(For a detailed business analysis of every publicly-traded pharmaceutical company, go to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar web site , and search for the latest 10-K form, which contains a business analysis. For a more readable (but less candid) report, see the company's annual report. Companies traded on the stock market will send you a printed annual report and 10-K free upon request.)


MARKETING TIP. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has a directory on its web site, in PDF format, of all its member companies (most major pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and many abroad), and "Associate" members that include large medical publishers and communications companies. PhRMA Glossary and Member's Index

MAGAZINES $1-1.25/WORD. Members of the National Association of Science Writers should see Tabitha Powledge's "The Free Lance" column in the Spring 2001 ScienceWriters newsletter , which reports on freelance opportunities at Popular Science, Science, New Scientist, Environmental Science and Technology, Analytical Chemistry, Physical Reviews, and Praxis Post. Tammy's previous columns are archived at the ScienceWriters index page (including last year's meeting with some of the same magazines); by now New Scientist is up to $1.15-1.25 a word.) You can search the archives for "tabitha m. powledge" to get them all. BUT you will need a password to access the member's section of the site.

INTERNET HEALTHCARE. For a report of the Internet Healthcare 2000 conference, New York, 24-5 April, see iHealthcareweekly , which is also available as a free email subscription. Among other things, several presentations described some of the Internet applications to health care that didn't work. Something else that didn't work: Managed care, according to several speakers, including George Lundberg.

See iHealthcareweekly's ever-popular list of the Top 20 Internet Healthcare sites for March