Inspiring Stories – Dr Zara Quail

Dr Zara Quail is a locum general practitioner based near Dublin, Ireland, who also assists eminent publishing groups with clinical editing, as well as content generation, placement and management.

Dr Quail has agreed to share her experiences as a doctor within the medical writing industry.

1. Hi Zara, thank you very much for finding the time to share your story. What did you use to do and what are your main professional roles now?

My pleasure. At the moment I work as a locum GP in Ireland and also as a clinical editor for a publishing company. Previously, I worked for 4.5 years for another eminent British medical publishing company on their point of care, clinical decision support products. I still do ad hoc work for them when they need it. More recently, I did clinical editing and content creation for an Irish company who do GP training online.

2. What made you explore medical writing and editing in the first place?

I’d always enjoyed writing and did well in English at school. I thought it would be a good way to combine my interest in writing and literature with medical information. I was also finding the full-time GP work draining and wanted to engage in something that would bring out my creative skills again. So I thought of a “win-win” – improving my clinical knowledge while helping other health professionals.

3. What are the best aspects of medical writing and editing?

The best aspects for me are engaging in new products and projects, as well as developing the skills that I would not ordinarily do in full-time clinical medicine, for example literature appraisal or review of current guidance, editorial workflow processes, project management, and editorial staff training and management. When we start on a new project, I find it very interesting gathering all the information, doing the scoping and helping with project planning. When the client permits it, I can work from home, which is an advantage to me. Editorial work really improves your own knowledge base that you can apply in your clinical work.

4. Are there any health warnings for doctors who are considering this career path?

I realized a little while into my editing career that I was developing back pain and neck pain because I was sitting for too long and my desk setup was not quite right. So make sure you have an ergonomic desk setup and a good chair, and that you do get up, move regularly or even stand for phone meetings.
While working from home, you can be spending much of your week not seeing anyone else except your immediate family. It can be a little bit isolating, although I find it useful, because it helps me to focus. If you have a home office and everything’s on your phone or your computer, there is a tendency to work in the evenings and on weekends, but that does cut into your rest and relaxation. It is important to take breaks, to socialize and to try not to let the work run into your personal time.

5. What fears did you have when you opted to work as a freelancer, and did any of them materialize?

The biggest fear when you are a freelancer is a lack of a regular income steam. I was lucky when I first started out in clinical editing that I got a permanent freelance contract, which I had for 4.5 years. When the company went through restructuring, they had to let their freelancers go. It was quite a big leap for me, but it got me very creative and focused on the areas I really wanted to look into, such as mHealth and eHealth. I have been lucky with GP locum work to fall back on. I think if you are going to start freelancing, having multiple income streams or at least something part time to keep you going until you build up your client base is a good thing to do.

6. Do you think any doctor can create this kind of portfolio career?

For me it works well because I like to vary my working week. I get quite involved with the care of my patients, and I do like to move between clinical and a more literature-based editing work. A portfolio career requires you to be able to change focus from taking care of your patients in clinic to going to your home office and working on an editorial project, so you split your roles, as well as your mind, across the week. One needs to be flexible and adaptable.

7. What does your typical week look like?

On Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursday mornings and Friday afternoons I do clinical editing work and phone meetings. Then Tuesdays all day, Thursday afternoon and Fridays I do GP locum work. Sometimes I catch up with extra work over the weekend. It is do-able, as long as you have very good calendar management skills.

8. Suppose I am a doctor who wants to explore medical writing as a possible career. What steps can I take?

If you are interested in clinical editing, you need to update your CV and point out why you’d like to engage in medical publishing. You can then send your CV to some medical publishing companies and recruiters. If a role does come up, you will need to be able to take a step back from some of your clinical engagements. I’ve managed to do this quite well as a locum GP, because I’m not permanently employed anywhere. An initial approach may be three days of clinical and two days of editing work, and then you can adjust accordingly. I went full-time with clinical editing at one stage, but now it is about 50/50.

9. What were some of the skills that helped you to create exciting professional opportunities and to carve out your own career path?

I had to make sure that my CV writing skills were good, so I researched how to tailor my CV to focus on the important skills that a publishing company would be looking for. Also, learning to network is very important in the publishing industry. All of my roles or projects have come through networks and word of mouth. You should have a good LinkedIn profile and make sure you take the time to engage with people, both at conferences or by looking them up online and contacting them.
I had to improve my skills in literature appraisal and medical writing. Project management and content management system were things I had to learn to understand and participate in the editorial processes. I also developed the technical skills of training editorial staff remotely via webinars.

10. What do you know now about medical career development that you wish you knew in medical school?

There is a lot more out there than just seeing patients! Having explored several options, medical editing and writing is something I got involved in, but even as a GP in London, I met doctors who were working as management consultants, advisers to biotech companies and the pharmaceutical industry. This is something I had not considered at medical school, and knowing it does open up many opportunities. In my case, there has been the opportunity to travel and engage with people at conferences.

11. If you weren't a doctor, what would you be doing instead?

I think I might be a musician, but I am glad I did medicine and I still use music for my sanity. I used to play the violin and piano, but at the moment it is mostly guitar and singing.

12. Where would you like to take your career?

My big vision for the future is to see how the mobile health sector can improve both patient care and help lessen the workload of the doctors by making healthcare more efficient. A lot can be done by using technology and, for example, making feedback on test results more efficient.

13. What would be your top tips for medics who would like a fulfilling career?

Make sure you schedule in time for yourself and your passions. A medical career can be all-consuming and can take up of most of your waking hours. Focusing on your career but making sure you have time for personal development and your own health and well-being, and also finding what really engages you is important. Carve out a niche or a special interest, which will keep you interested and motivated.

14. Thank you very much Zara!

My pleasure!

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