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  • Writer's pictureJacquie Mahon

Subject-Matter Experts and Medical Writers: A Fruitful Alliance

I sighed inwardly as the Chief Medical Officer launched into another long story about the early days of the clinical research organization (CRO) he founded. The tales were interesting, but this meeting in his office had been scheduled to discuss his particular area of expertise: orphan diseases. He was the subject-matter expert (SME) for a promotional piece I was writing. I glanced at my prepared list of questions so that I would be ready to insert one at the first opportunity. Also, I remembered that the initial connection with an SME is important for the forging of a beneficial and trusting relationship.

Lock-and-key collaboration
The writer’s key function is to help the subject-matter expert share and communicate knowledge.

Have you found yourself in a similar situation? Do your medical writers struggle when working with SMEs? There are multiple reasons why collaborating on content with a medical expert can be challenging. Since you need what SMEs have, however, it is incumbent on you to facilitate the interaction.

Consider the expert’s perspective and frame of reference.

The SME:

• is in high demand because of her expertise. Therefore, her days may be hectic and tightly scheduled. She is deeply engaged in numerous high-level projects.

• spent many years working to amass the wealth of knowledge that you, a neophyte, wish to selectively employ.

• has thought long and hard about her specialty, and probably sacrificed precious personal time to attain her current status as a key opinion leader.

• is a high achiever by training a laser focus on her subject matter and the needs, advances, goals, and developments within her field.

• is most likely not a skilled writer or content creator . . . but thinks she is.

Therefore, your first difficulty may be carving time out of the SME’s schedule. Plan your initial overture. If you are in the same location, use facetime in the hallway or pop your head into the SME’s office to briefly alert her that you will need her expertise; then follow-up with a concise but detailed email. (Tip: Be ready to give an elevator pitch about the project in the hallway, in case your SME asks to hear details on the spot.)

In your overview email, include a few points about why the piece will have value: Why should the SME care? Also be sure to explain: who the audience is; the purpose of the piece; the action desired of the reader/viewer/listener; which topics must be covered; and what the final product will be (eg, web article, podcast, promotional brochure). Lastly, ask for a meeting, and indicate exactly how much time you will need.

If the SME is consistently unresponsive, an introductory note to the SME from an upper-level colleague can be edifying. Next, start preparing.

Bring all of your skills and talents to the table.

The SME is likely to be brilliant and intense, with a nimble mind. For a successful interaction, you need to be sharp and alert. Start by researching your SME. Look for online biographies that tell you where she was educated, places she has lived, particular interests, and the like. In a few minutes, you can gather points of commonality on which you can relate before conducting business. (Tip: You are establishing a transactional relationship—and you are the supplicant.)

Keep in mind your own abilities. Do not be intimidated. Consider yourself the translator of the SME’s vast store of knowledge. You would not attempt brain surgery; she should not attempt to write the content. Here are some tried and true methods for successful collaboration with an SME:


  1. Provide an agenda for the meeting at least a day before. Specify the format, goals, and expected product of the meeting (eg, a content outline).

  2. Ask if your SME would like to receive your list of questions before the meeting.

  3. Prepare a list of targeted questions, the answers to which will power your writing. (Tip: Consider recording the discussion, so that you can be interacting with the SME rather than bent over your laptop or pad typing/scribbling notes. Obviously you will need to ask the SME’s permission.)

  4. Allow extra time on your end, in case your SME decides to pontificate (see first paragraph). Should you find the conversation off track, politely but firmly guide it back. If necessary, mention imminent deadlines. (Tip: Enlist the SME in helping you succeed. Clarify that you need her expertise to do your job.

  5. Toward the end of the meeting, propose roles and responsibilities (eg, you write, she reviews). You can ask how involved the SME would like to be, but it is better to retain control of the framework for collaboration, and propose what you, as a content specialist, know would work best. (Tip: You are not cowriters. She brings her expertise to the project, and you bring yours.)

  6. Conclude the meeting by describing next steps and assigning some due dates. Reiterate the timeline when you send her the outline, the 1st draft, etc.

Attitudes (yours)

  1. Be respectful. Ask how she prefers to communicate with you.

  2. Be excited. Your enthusiasm about the subject and end-product will encourage the SME to share her passion about her life’s work.

  3. Be complimentary. Usually there is much to be impressed by when working with an SME. And there’s nothing wrong with “spreading a little sugar” when you are asking a favor. But do not fawn (see next point).

  4. Be authentic. While maintaining a high level of professionalism, remember to connect on a personal level. Add her to your network! You may need her expertise again on a future project.

  5. Be engaged. No matter how busy you are, checking your phone while meeting with the SME is inadvisable. Devoting your attention to the SME shows respect.

Make the collaboration easy for the SME.

While you are not cowriters, if the SME is uncomfortable posting comments and tracking changes within the document, and your schedule is slipping as a result, sit with her and transcribe her review directly into the text. This solution produces rapid results without a lot of emailing back and forth. The CRO Chief Medical Officer at the beginning of this article enjoyed this approach, although it took mighty effort on my part to minimize digressions. Be sure to obtain the SME’s full approval of the outline. If you think she didn’t really examine it, then ask specific questions (eg, “Does it cover cystic fibrosis to your satisfaction?). You do not want a surprised SME at the 1st-draft stage. Going forward, provide regular updates on the status of the project. When the final piece is published or released, thank and credit the SME. You could not have done it without this authority’s collaboration!



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