Medical Writing and Medical Communication
A strategy for differentiating services for LSPs

By Domenico Lombardini

Every vertical is an ocean of opportunity

Besides luck (let’s not deny it), there is a clear and possibly simple strategy underlying the success of a business. Sergio Marchionne, the great CEO of FIAT Automobiles, now Stellantis, once said that the hardest part is making the strategy. Once this is established, most of the work is done; the rest is simply (so to speak) execution.

It’s important to consider the competitive landscape and the company’s abilities (human capital, technology, capital, ideas) when outlining the strategy, while always bearing in mind that the aim in the medium to long term must be to increase the company’s size. Many people — especially in my country, Italy — still indulge in the false notion that “smaller is better,” despite the fact that small businesses are simply not as efficient as large ones.

This is because they cannot leverage economies of scale to limit costs and increase revenues. And that’s not to mention the fact that smaller businesses struggle to ensure higher salaries for their employees. However, when a company is small, it can still take different directions, indulging in the business owner’s passions and intuitions. If there’s an advantage of small- and medium-sized companies, it lies in their ability to easily adapt to a changing competitive landscape.

The CEO of a small LSP often finds himself reconsidering his business strategy, even radically, and is often faced with the classic dilemma: Is it better to increase the range of services, or specialize and then verticalize more and more in the most well-suited areas? As the head of a small LSP myself, I too have often faced this dilemma. After years of studying the market, I now consider specialization to be the much more strategic route. This allows both a potential competitive advantage over competitors who are not specialists in their fields, and a better differentiation from the rest of the competitive landscape.

However, specialization does not mean limiting the scope of action. Every vertical is an ocean of opportunity, and verticalizing the offer also means better understanding customers’ needs. In addition, a decisive specialization strategy does not necessarily imply a reduced offer. Indeed, verticalization often provides the opportunity to increase the number of services once the customer’s needs are better understood. Specialization creates value for the company and is a good way to protect it from competitive pressure acting almost exclusively on price.

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Why medical writing and medical communication? A personal reflection

As I write this, my company is at a turning point in relation to its future strategy.

Having grown a lot over the past few years in our areas of interest (intellectual property, legal, medical, and technical fields), our focus has been more on operations (i.e., on improving our operational capacity in response to growing demand) rather than on better refining our corporate strategy. We have implicitly specialized in these areas, but we have not explicitly projected a corporate image that aligns with our skills. The goal is to more effectively communicate that our focus is on patent, legal, and medical-scientific-technical translations and medical communication services.

Why medical communication? Simply put, because I started working in this area during my PhD studies in experimental neuroscience. I love writing, and I have always had a tendency to combine the two skills (writing and science), from a very young age. I fondly remember a fifth-grade essay, a good 10 pages long and full of spelling mistakes. In the essay, I combined a story starring Pimpa (a famous comic strip character in Italy created by the illustrator Altan) with fanciful explanations (but with the funny pretense of appearing scientific) of why it rains.

Now, many years later, I’ve tried to transfer these interests to my own company — medical writing and medical communication services have become a part of our offerings, significantly contributing to the total turnover. But what do I mean when I say medical communication?

Which companies produce medical content

As the pandemic from which we are painstakingly emerging has taught us, making correct scientific information available to the public is not only a question of professional ethics for those who work in communication, but also a question of public safety.

But which companies regularly need this kind of service? Of course, pharmaceutical companies often use external suppliers for these needs. Pharmaceutical companies generally have an even higher budget allocated to marketing activities than that allocated to research. Aside from being important buyers of multilingual translation and interpretation services, pharmaceutical companies also have a continuous need for medical writing services and, in general, for communication services aimed at the medical and general public.

But what are we talking about when we refer to these kinds of services?

Generally speaking, we can identify the following activities:

  • Medical writing intended for the medical or specialized members of the public
  • Medical writing intended for the general public
  • Regulatory medical writing services
  • Creation of multimedia products
  • Creation of editorial products
  • Graphic design and illustration services.

Other entities that may need this kind of service include public institutions (research institutions, hospitals, universities, etc.), nonprofit organizations (cancer research associations, patient associations, etc.), medical associations, communication professionals, specialized publishers, and others.

It is quite interesting to note that all these entities can also be buyers of language services. Offering medical communication services could thus be an added value and a competitive advantage over competitors. It should further be noted that LSPs also offering medical communication services could intercept demand a little further down the value chain as well.

Here’s one such situation. A pharmaceutical company turns to a digital communication company for its communication needs — say, creating a website to promote one of its products. The digital communication company may not have all the necessary professional skills in-house to meet the customer’s need. It may need a medical writer to produce the textual content of the website in question and could thus become a client. The same digital communication company could then become a buyer of language services.

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Some examples of services

In addition to the aforementioned content creation service for websites aimed at the general public, pharmaceutical companies need regulatory medical writing services. This kind of service is very delicate, as it is of crucial importance for the company. In fact, before a product (a drug, a supplement, or a medical device) is launched, it must go through a very precise regulatory process. A whole series of documents must be produced throughout this process, which are approved by the relevant regulatory body before the product can be marketed.

Other examples are making PowerPoint presentations, writing scientific papers from drafts or briefs, writing abstracts, creating complex products such as video animations, creating text and graphic content for brochures or visuals, creating SEO content, and so on.

The interesting aspect of this kind of service is that it often requires creative support that can only be provided by a person with ‘hybrid’ skills, i.e., a person who combines technical skills (because he has a degree or doctorate in a medical-scientific discipline), creativity, and the ability to write in his or her native language correctly and appropriately for the target audience. The convergence of all these skills often leads to a higher value for these services.

Recruiting qualified staff, vendor management, and project management

The professional figures needed to offer medical communications include, of course, a medical writer. The writer must first be selected with academic training in mind. A university degree is an absolute necessity, though a doctoral degree with specialization in medical practices is ideal. In recruiting a medical writer, we must look at their experience, specialization in particular clinical areas and a portfolio of past work. Many medical writers are eclectic and can therefore deal with virtually every clinical field.

The selection method of these professionals is not unlike that adopted for the selection of linguists. However, the vendor manager needs basic training on these services to better identify the most suitable resources.

Project managers will also have to be adequately trained to manage this type of workflow. Where this takes on a substantial dimension, it would be advantageous to have one or a team of project managers with a degree in a medical-scientific discipline and experience in medical writing or medical communication. Since project managers are the closest contacts to the customer, they are the first to identify problems and propose solutions. Project managers in these types of workflows must be good at creatively and proactively solving problems.

Other interesting and useful professionals include graphic designers (who could lay out editorial products or prepare graphics), illustrators, and video animation creators. The ability to offer this entire creative team will be highly appreciated by customers.

An activity with high added value

Medical writing services and medical communication services in general represent a good differentiation strategy and an effective way of verticalizing an LSP’s offer. The service falls within a type of consultancy with a high intellectual and creative content and is usually greatly appreciated by clients, who will therefore be happy to pay a premium. That’s not to be looked down upon in the language services industry where price is, as we know all too well, the main criterion driving clients’ propensity to purchase. In addition to this, the customers of these services are also offered language services: From the customer’s point of view, the possibility of having all these services in a single provider is a win-win strategy.

Domenico Lombardini is the founder and CEO of ASTW Specialized Translation, a language service provider specializing in the intellectual property, life sciences, legal, technical, and scientific fields.

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