Two members of a clinical-stage authoring group discuss education programs and the alternative career path of medical writing, which can offer hybrid/virtual work-life balance opportunities.
Pharmacy Times® interviewed Kevin Pang, PharmD, associate oncology scientist/medical writer at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), and Noni Theocharides, a PharmD student at Rutgers University, on their experiences pursuing nontraditional career paths during and following their PharmD program. Pang and Theocharides dive into how they learned about medical writing as a specialized field, as well as provide insight for students and health care practitioners who may be looking for similar nontraditional opportunities.
Additionally, Pang encourages students and health care practitioners that are looking to improve their medical writing capabilities to reach out to him at email@example.com for advice or recommendations. He and his co-authors write articles for Pharmacy Times Oncology Edition™ and other journals and are open to collaboration with new or experienced medical writers alike.
Alana Hippensteele: Hi, I'm Alana Hippensteele with Pharmacy Times®,and joining me is Kevin Pang, PharmD, and Noni Theocharides, PharmD candidate, and they're both here to talk a little bit about the work they do in the intersections of medicine, research, and writing. So just to get us started, Kevin, would you start just by sharing a little bit about what you do and where you do that work?
Kevin Pang: I am a pharmacist graduated from Rutgers University and I currently work as an associate oncology scientist/medical writer at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, otherwise known as NCCN. Primarily, I'm responsible for the update and maintenance of several of the NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®) and I essentially work with nationally renowned clinicians to update recommendations and implement them into the NCCN Guidelines®.
Hippensteele: And Noni?
Noni Theocharides: I am a pharmacy student at Rutgers University. I am in my fourth of six years. And on the side, I do a little bit of entrepreneurial education-based work. Primarily, the majority of my time is spent at school.
Hippensteele: Yeah, of course. You both have been contributors for Pharmacy Times Oncology Edition™. And kind of getting started into that—I'm kind of curious, so starting off first with Kevin, what brought you to your work with NCCN, and how did you get started working at that organization?
Pang: Sure. So a little bit of background: I worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a pharmacy intern for quite a number of years. There, the real important aspects of that position were that I got to compound and work with chemotherapy drugs. I got quite familiar with these oncologic drugs and what they're used for. And that brought me to wanting to specialize in hematology and oncology. Along with a few pharmacy rotations in the pharmaceutical industry, namely Celgene and BMS, I knew for a fact that I wanted to work in this specialty field. When I came across this position at NCCN, I thought to myself that my experiences as a medical writer and my clinical knowledge of topics related to hematology/oncology would make me the perfect candidate.
Hippensteele: Yeah, absolutely. And then kind of diving in a little bit, basically, how does medicine and writing intersect for you? Is it medicine that came first, and what is your background with writing in relation to medicine? To both of you, but we can start with Kevin.
Pang: Sure. I guess what really drove me into writing is, honestly, just a number of different experiences at school. I participated in the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy (AMCP) Pharmacy and Therapeutics (P&T) Competition, in which I learned how to write pertaining to medical literature. And from there, I essentially learned that there is quite an important role that medical writing plays because it tells health care practitioners what the most effective therapy for their patient is. You have to look at the available body of evidence, and sometimes that body of evidence is so massive that it's really hard to get anything from it. So medical writing compiles all the information into a readily producible form that clinicians could use, and that's the value that I see in medical writing.
Hippensteele: Yeah, absolutely. And Noni, how do medicine and writing intersect for you? Were your interests in writing something that you found early or was that something that you found in your PharmD program?
Theocharides: I would say in the past, I was always fairly interested in writing, but medicine definitely overcame that in terms of which came first. Growing up in a home full of medical doctors, my exposure to medicine was always a constant. And in school, once we learned about and started to review journal articles and did some work with our local school journal, I think I learned a lot about being able to take the complex information like from journal articles, and from the data, be able to create a summation or to create it in a more digestible manner for either your peers, patients, etc. I think it was just a really interesting way to take a different look at medicine.
Hippensteele: Yeah, absolutely. It's really interesting because you're not necessarily exposed to that as a career path within your pharmacy program. Would you say that that's correct?
Pang: Yeah. I would say my education at Rutgers University was quite generalized, as is most pharmacy programs around the nation. So I was taught about traditional pathways of pharmacists, such as retail or hospital pharmacy, and for this pathway of medical writing, I really had to dive into it in my spare time, either through extracurricular activities or experiential programs or job experiences. It's something that I feel that could be significantly improved in the curriculum of pharmacy schools, just by having maybe a class that's specifically titled “nontraditional career paths in pharmacy”.
Hippensteele: Absolutely. That's really interesting. So as you're saying, what are your perspectives on the types of nontraditional roles that might be available to pharmacists that maybe they're not exposed to within their PharmD program? Not because that pharmacy program isn't top notch, but just because it might not be a part of the standard curriculum that you would have in those programs.
Theocharides: I would say in general, there are still opportunities to learn more about it, like Kevin mentioned. Some of the extracurriculars, some of the clubs, they will bring in representatives from different fields. And I think in terms of writing, we did get a little bit of exposure because we had a medical literature class, which was actually really informative. Prior, I thought I knew how to read a journal article, but I realized I did not at all. But the class helped to break down some of the concepts. However, it resonates with some students more than others; some are not interested. And again, there are some electives that you have to pursue in order to learn more about different fields. So there's like an industry elective where they bring in representatives from the industry in different fields within that sector. But I would agree that there's definitely additional exposure that could be had to have students be a little more optimistic about their outcomes after they graduate. So they know just how vast the opportunities are once they obtain the degree.
Hippensteele: Often times, when we think about areas within health care that are publishing heavy or focused on publishing and writing, it might be more within academia that you might think would be the direction, but there are opportunities outside of academia for pharmacists who are interested and have that type of qualification or that type of skillset. So it's interesting. So how can pharmacists who are out of their PharmD program learn more about some of these unconventional roles, and maybe see what roles might be a good fit for them?
Pang: Absolutely. So I think a lot of it comes down to your skillset and realizing what you are capable of and what you enjoy. Particularly, if you know you have already built quite a skillset, you can find a lot of positions concerning medical writing in pharmaceutical industry, in medical communication companies, or also in a select number of either nonprofit organizations or patient advocacy organizations. So a lot of that comes down to really avidly searching online for what you think fits your skillset.
I should note that within medical writing, there are different subsets. Like, for instance, a good number of the medical writing positions in the pharmaceutical industry might pertain to more regulatory documents, like for meetings with the FDA, whereas for a nonprofit organization, they might pertain to either publications or quick references for health care practitioners or patients.
What I recommend, honestly, is if you don't have the skillset, look for other avenues that can improve or build upon your skillset. For instance, I have applied to a certificate program on medical writing at Harvard Medical School; I will be completing it within the course of a year. And even though I feel that my skills in medical writing are quite proficient, you can always improve. So post-graduation, there are always opportunities to build upon your skillset. You can either do that through just writing in general, reading a lot of journals, or getting a little bit more education.
Hippensteele: Yeah. So it's interesting during the pandemic, aspects of being in the pharmacy or the specialty pharmacy became a little bit more difficult, and more professionals were interested in opportunities to go virtual because they needed to care for their families a bit more. So this area within pharmacy kind of allows you to get that virtual component that maybe you needed.Instead of being in a pharmacy location in order to compound, or being at the hospital or at the retail pharmacy location, you're going to be able to be at home and get all of the perks of an office job while still retaining some of your expertise and being focused on that. So, are there any other benefits to this aspect? Why did this seem like the right outlet for both of you?
Pang: Yeah, for me in particular, I felt that I needed a good work-life balance in order to feel happy and productive and feel like I've contributed to the health care community. I knew, for instance, that I would not be the best at retail or hospital pharmacy, but my skillset in medical writing could really be put to a lot of good use. And essentially, the field of medical writing really gives you that flexibility to work on your own time and in a setting that is not necessarily physically demanding, as it might be in a hospital or retail setting. So by being able to work in the office and work at home during certain parts of the week, I'm able to really concentrate my efforts on perhaps a document I'm writing or an algorithm that I'm revising. By that flexibility, I can also modify my work hours in the sense that I might work earlier in the day, or I might work later in the day, just because I have more time saved from the commute.
I would point out that I feel in a setting that is not so technical and more knowledge based, I feel that there's a lot less demanding stimulation or requests, like from a nurse asking to fill a prescription or a patient asking to authorize a refill. It just gives me more peace of mind, less stress, so I can focus on me as a person and my career. I know a few friends actually that either work in retail pharmacy or did a residency in a hospital and they feel like the work-life balance is not as adequate and are looking to switch into a different career path.
However, I think medical writing is not for everyone. Some people really like retail or hospital pharmacy. But I think professionals need to really look at what their skillset is and what kind of work-life balance they would like. I'm sure that Noni can talk about her experience in medical writing and how that really fits into her busy life as a student. Right?
Theocharides: I would say definitely. It's easier to integrate medical writing with schoolwork because sometimes a lot of the material overlaps, as well as, again, the virtual component. And I'm honestly not sure what I want to do exactly after graduation. Like we were saying, there's so many fields that I genuinely do not know about yet. So I'm looking to expose myself as much as possible, to see again, where I can find most fulfillment while producing and contributing the most, in a sense that what I'm doing is meaningful.
Hippensteele: Yeah, absolutely. It's really exciting; you founded your own company, and it's in the space of medical writing as well. Do you want to just talk a little bit about what that company does?
Theocharides: Yes. So it's really based towards education in general. So it was originally designed for primarily tutoring and just providing that outlet for students who need additional help, primarily in the sciences, and also ACT preparation as well. And then last year, a test prep corporation reached out and asked me to write a NAPLEX textbook. So I hired a team. And then throughout the course of the year, we were able to complete that. So now, I'm not really sure exactly what our next project is going to be. But again, it's really designed for education for learners, not necessarily students, but learners, so whoever's interested.
Hippensteele: Absolutely. Noni, what is your perspective on current pharmacy education as a PharmD student? So I know that within certain aspects of training, you might have, like Kevin was saying, a more general education. I'm always curious about aspects of, for example, mental health and being aware of mental health and some of those treatments, but also kind of bringing pharmacists more into the fold around motivational interviewing and things like that. But that's something that I've been hearing a bit at conferences, and I'm kind of curious about your experience with some of the deeper dives into actually working with patients. Do you feel like that's something that you're starting to hear more about within your curriculum?
Theocharides: I would say definitely, as the years have progressed. So the program is a six year program. The first two years are not specialized towards pharmacy. They're just general, like pre-med courses, so if you're not sure, you can still switch back and forth with your major. And then the professional years are the four years that follow. And I will say definitely, in the second professional year, we've begun to look more at how we are treating patients and aspects of that. So our clinically-based classes are pharmacotherapy classes. They're really learning about treatment algorithms, and what to do in a hospital setting and how to actually treat patients. And then we have something called “iPASS”, but it's basically a direct application of patient interactions. We have practicals in which we practice patient interactions with actor patients.
Hippensteele: Okay, That's interesting.
Theocharides: Yeah. So, you definitely get the aspects of the patients and in terms of retail, you get the aspects of the drug through other courses. But beyond that, it would be interesting to see, again, more fields.
Hippensteele: Yeah, absolutely. At Pharmacy Times®, we try to emphasize the role that pharmacists can have also within patient care, especially within oncology. Having more oncology pharmacists involved in the health care team is immensely advantageous for patients, especially patients with cancer who might be having adverse effects to treatments that they're not sure why it’s happening or why in response to a treatment. Or for example, for symptoms like pain management that they're having difficulty with, they would like to be able to talk to an oncology pharmacist who can explain that further. So something that we're always promoting is the value of the pharmacist and the oncology pharmacist in the health care team. Do either of you have any closing thoughts on any of the subjects we discussed?
Pang: I think pharmacy education is something that is a little too generalized for my liking. There could be more opportunities for specialization, perhaps in a particular field or specialty would be much appreciated. I think medical writing is an interesting field. It has its benefits and also has its drawbacks, but it is a field that I think should be discussed more amongst professionals and students alike.
Theocharides: To piggyback off Kevin, I think that pharmacy school is pretty general, but not to refute, I want to also bring light to the fact that a lot of students don't know exactly what they want to do. But again, to be able to have the opportunity to specialize maybe through additional courses would definitely be a good contribution to the curriculum.