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Competency Bias and the Medical Writer

By Cheryl Scheir

The beauty and curse of my work as a freelance medical writer is that almost no one outside of my industry knows what I do.

Here it is in a nutshell: I write training material for pharmaceutical reps. They visit doctors and hospitals to inform them about new drugs that have come on the market, old drugs with new uses, and clinical trial data about both. I write the modules, eLearning programs, and workshops that teach them the information they need to know in order to communicate credibility to their customers.

Before COVID, it took about 5 seconds of that very brief explanation for someone’s eyes to glaze over in a “I have no idea what you’re talking about” tune-out. Now with everyday talk about COVID vaccines, efficacy data, clinical trial phases, adverse effects, and administration regimens, everyone’s an expert, and my square on the credibility map has barely moved.

I remember a conversation years ago with an acquaintance who responded with shock that I, who lack a medical degree or scientific training, could presume to write about medical topics. Never mind that I have great written communication skills. Never mind that I am only writing about clinical topics, not conducting research or treating patients. Never mind that my acquaintance’s grandmother’s neighbor’s paper boy has probably had multiple conversations in recent weeks about whether the Moderna 2-shot vaccine is preferable to the Johnson and Johnson 1-shot vaccine.

It used to bother me, but as of today, I’m going to leave that bother behind. (To be honest, I never really knew what my Dad did at work. Something for the Department of the Army with project management, but definitely not spy stuff, with plenty of room for practical jokes.) What I’m going to do instead is challenge you about your competence bias, that is, your tendency to overestimate your own knowledge and competence while also failing to recognize knowledge and competence in others.

It’s a natural thing for all of us to assume we have average competence on every topic, but that’s simply not the case. With over decade of experience in my field, I have accumulated knowledge and skills related to pharmaceutical products that the average person lacks. Others have knowledge and skills that I lack. Respect means relating to each other with those differences in mind.

Bottom line: give yourself credit, but not too much credit. Own your knowledge, but recognize your knowledge gaps. Open yourself to those who know more than you do about a certain subject, and gently inform those who know less than you do about other subjects. In general, strive to have a correct estimate of your own abilities, and remember: there’s always more to learn.

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