How Working in Healthcare Made Me a Better Freelancer

Working in healthcare prepared me to be a better freelance writer. Without a doubt.

As anyone familiar with my Service page knows, I have MA in Speech-Language Pathology and spent almost a decade working as a medical Speech Therapist. This time was primarily spent in skilled nursing facilities and hospitals but did include outpatient and home health work as well. The hours were often long, and the work was emotional. Paring the actual work down: I worked with patients following a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, and sometimes patients in the end stages of dementia that weren’t tolerating food well anymore. My job was to improve safety and quality of life through increased swallowing safety (oral motor exercises, neuromuscular electrical stimulation, diet modification), increased communication (spoken, written, read, heard), and increased cognitive communicative skills (such as attention, memory, problem solving). That’s the short version.

You might be thinking: how did feeding people make you a better freelancer? There are several skills working in this field helped me hone that I’ve found to be invaluable when working as a full-time (and part-time) freelance writer.

Managing A Large Caseload

Okay, so I don’t think of my book coaching, editing, or ghost writing clients as a caseload. I definitely don’t think of my personal writing that way. But the skills needed to manage a large caseload do apply. As a Speech Therapist, I would be managing the care (setting goals, treating patient, educating staff and family, and completing all paperwork) for up to 14 patients at a time. If we’re looking at averages, it’s closer to 9. But that’s a lot to keep track of. Especially with real lives and insurance reimbursement on the line.

I learned to keep track of information and organize deadlines quickly. I got very good at remembering details about specific medical histories, family member names, and current progress. I also learned that I remember things a lot better when I see them in writing. You’d think I’d have identified that part of my learning style in school, but it never really hit home until I was trying to keep track of so many things at once, while still having a life and writing on the side.

The last thing somebody wants is a book coach that forgets their scheduled call. Or one that spends half the call being reminded about the story arc, or where the writer needs help. Nobody wants a developmental editor that can’t keep track of characters and side plots or isn’t detailed enough to realize when they need to double check the previous chapters for time or information continuity. Being able to keep multiple storylines and strangers straight is a key part of being a successful freelancer. These days, I’m typically writing 2-3 projects at time, in addition to my book coaching and editing. Of course, it’s an ebb and flow that varies based on the number of clients I have for each section of my services at any given time. I keep it manageable.

Productivity & Efficiency

Wanna know a dirty little secret of healthcare? A lot of professionals, especially Physical, Occupational, and Speech therapists, work under ridiculous productivity requirements. What does that mean? It means that any minute we spend not on billable treatment is measured and considered unproductive. All note writing, conversations with doctors and nurses, phone calls with family without the patient present and participating, and even personal bathroom breaks are counted against your productivity. Typically, you are expected to be 80-90% productive. Meaning in an 8 hour work day you’re expected to spend about 7 hours on billable patient time. No, we don’t get 15 minute breaks. We’re often considered exempt from labor laws.

This means whatever doesn’t get done in the “paid” period is done off the clock. That’s right, your PT is probably working an hour or more a day off the clock so that they don’t get written up for productivity. That’s because healthcare is a business in this country.

I’ve gotten very good at working quickly. I type with about four fingers, but I type fast. I synthesize information and make decisions without much hesitation. Even when something is hard, I put my head down and I power through it. Because every minute I waste is a minute I’m working for free.

I’m good at organizing my day and re-organizing it as things change. Let’s be honest: when you’re working with humans, things always change. Schedules just never work perfectly and being flexible is a core part of making the day continue productively.

As a freelancer, you set your pay scale. How much people are willing to pay varies widely, and there will be many, many clients that want you to work for very low prices. I mean, less than half a cent a word. Which means that you have to hunt for the right clients, but you also have to be able to work quickly. Because the clients that pay a living wage are not nearly as frequent as the ones that don’t. When you’re starting out, you might be taking more of those low paying jobs than you want to. Make your time count.

You Have To Be Honest & Kind

You can’t be just one and not the other. No patient wants to be lied to, or have the truth avoided. They can usually tell. Bedside manner and building rapport is one of the best assets a clinician can have. It’s usually the difference between a therapist that gets buy-in from patients and one that gets minimal participation from the tricky ones.

As a freelancer, your business depends on delivering quality work and being a likeable human. Sometimes, that’s hard. Clients may change their mind on a key element mid-project and it’s frustrating. People might ask you for free phone calls or e-mail back and forth with you for days, but then choose a different writer. Snapping at these current or potential clients will not make you their first choice next time.

As an editor, and book coach I feel like the importance of honesty should be a given. If I’m not being honest with you, I’m not helping you. But that doesn’t mean I have to be harsh in my honesty. Learning how to give feedback and corrections without hurting the person you’re giving it to takes experience. Especially on days when you’re tired, or rushed, or frustrated. As a therapist, I learned to set myself aside. I don’t bring my personal life into work.

I learned to listen to what the patient says. If they’re not hearing me, I rephrase. Sometimes it takes a few different angles to make something clear, and that’s okay. If they’re feeling sad/hurt/overwhelmed, I take the time to give them positive feedback and make sure they see the things they are doing well. That’s also what I do as a freelance book coach and editor.

These are just some of the ways working in healthcare prepared me to be a better freelancer. As a speech therapist, my day was fairly autonomous. Nobody paid much attention to what I did in my treatments, or how I prioritized patient goals. I did that on my own, with the inclusion of my patient’s wants and needs. Freelancing is the same. You have to be able to self-monitor and to self-manage. You don’t want to be the person clients have to check in with two days after the deadline.