• Jessica Martin, PhD

Finding a Freelance Needs Assessment Writer: 11 Questions to Ask

Updated: Mar 28, 2019

The busy grant season is here, and new requests for proposals are being published daily. You have a good start on most of your grant, but that pesky needs assessment (NA) section still needs to be written. You either don't have an in-house writer, or your writers are busy developing full grants and CME content. Your best bet to get those NAs turned around quickly is to find a freelance medical writer.


But finding freelancers for needs assessments is not always easy. Not all medical writers write needs assessments. And not all medical writers who write needs assessments write good needs assessments.


If you want to find medical writers who write NAs with a high chance of getting funded, here are 11 questions to ask.


To begin, ask some introductory questions.

1. What is your experience with NAs?

Any medical writer that you’re considering hiring should have experience with NAs. Ideally, that experience will be in writing NAs, but sometimes other types of experience may be transferrable. For example, some newer medical writers may have experience editing, proofreading, or even reviewing NAs. Others may have participated in CME activities in the past. Don’t discount these other types of experience immediately.


For those medical writers with NA experience, you should follow-up with a request for samples. For those medical writers with other types of experience, ask them for samples of CME materials.


2. Are you familiar with the ACCME Standards for Commercial Support and fair balance?

This is key for any medical writer planning to take on NA writing. Medical writers who are not familiar with ACCME accreditation, the ACCME Standards for Commercial Support, and especially rules about fair balance have not done their homework—and you don’t want a medical writer who has not done their homework.


3. Are you comfortable using an RFP or CFG to develop gaps and learning objectives? Are you comfortable developing gaps and learning objectives in the absence of an RFP or CFG?

Some medical writers will not write NAs that don’t have gaps and learning objectives already identified or that don’t have RFPs. It’s best to steer clear of these writers, as they may have a case of “not my job.” Medical writers should be willing to do the research required to write accurate gaps and learning objectives—for an appropriate fee, of course. Your follow-up question should be whether the medical writer is willing to write an agenda and identify potential faculty.


4. Do you include revisions in your fees?

Good medical writers are confident in the quality of their writing and will want to ensure that their clients are happy. At least two rounds of revisions should be included in all deliverables, and I believe that the best medical writers will include unlimited revisions with any project. After all, these medical writers will be confident that multiple rounds of revisions will not be necessary.


5. Are you able to meet this timeline?

This is key, especially for RFPs or CFGs with hard deadlines. Ensure that the writer can meet the timeline that you’ve given. A follow-up question might be: "Is this a reasonable timeline?" Good medical writers will have a sense for the time that it takes to research and write an NA, and they will be honest with you if it is not a reasonable deadline.


Next, take a look at the writer’s NA samples.

6. Are the knowledge or practice gaps justified with evidence?

For now, skip past the executive summary and take a look at the gaps. Is there a “data dump” in the gap analysis? Some writers will devote the majority of their word count to a comprehensive literature review, but clinical data rarely provide good support for a knowledge or practice gap. Look for NAs that contain references to real-world data, past outcomes data, case studies, KOL interviews or quotes, patient surveys, and clinician surveys. This evidence often provides the best support for gaps, and yet they are often overlooked, even by experienced medical writers. The literature review that is included should be selective and focused on large phase 3 trials and clinical practice guidelines.


7. Are the learning objectives written with attention to Bloom’s taxonomy and outcomes measurements?

Move on to the learning objectives. Does the writer start each learning objective with a single measurable action verb (preferably using at least one verb that represents competence)? Or does the writer use vague or unmeasurable verbs?


Does the writer create interest by using a variety of different verbs? Or do they repeat the same verb in each objective?


When reviewing learning objectives, keep in mind that, sometimes, clients provide learning objectives for their medical writers. In these cases, the learning objectives may not be wholly representative of the writer’s skillset. This is where having multiple samples will be helpful. Look at the learning objectives from the different samples—are they consistent? If not, feel free to ask the writer which learning objectives they developed themselves.


8. Does the writer make a case for the need for a CME initiative?

Writers should make a case that a proposed initiative will address a need in the field. This can be done in either the executive summary or the conclusion (or both, preferably). The best medical writers will know that NAs are part literature review, part sales pitch. It is the writer’s job to sell the need for a CME to the sponsor using the available evidence in the literature.


If the NA topic is about a rare or under-researched disease state, does the medical writer get creative to make a case? There are some disease states that are underfunded, but the lack of research itself can belie a practice gap. Good medical writers will know how to highlight these facts to make their case


9. Is the document free of errors?

This may sound obvious, but a surprising number of samples come in with errors in them. Medical writers are human, and they will inevitably make mistakes. That said, medical writers should be using their very best work as a sample. If a sample comes to you with errors in it, do not expect the final deliverable to be error-free.


Another great way to check whether a medical writer has an eye for detail is to take a look at the reference list. Whatever style the reference list is formatted in, it should be consistent for every single reference. If it’s not, the medical writer may struggle to proofread their own work (a key skillset of good writers).


Consider your overall interactions with the writer.

10. Has the writer responded promptly to emails?

Prompt and pleasant communication is the cornerstone of any good freelancer’s business. If a medical writer does not do this, I'd recommend moving along.


11. Has the writer adequately answered your questions and provided samples when asked?

Failure to provide samples or to directly answer questions is also a red flag. Open and honest communication is important. You should feel comfortable with any medical writer that you work with.


Hopefully, this advice will help you find a freelance medical writer who not only writes NAs, but writes good NAs. Next week, we will talk about questions that are frequently asked of medical writers before an NA that are not very informative.


If you're looking for a medical writer who can answer the above 11 questions--and any others that you have--consider reaching out to us at Martin Medical Writing, LLC. You can email Jessica for more information or for a quote at jessica@martinmedicalwriting.com.

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