Are needs assessments the outcast of freelance medical writing?

CME is a massive industry and the demand for needs assessments is high. Why don’t most writers give needs assessments a fair shake?

Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash

Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash

When I first started freelancing, I sort of stumbled into writing a lot of needs assessments (a.k.a. grant proposals for CME programs.) The agency that I was working for at the time had many CME clients who needed them, and it was springtime - prime season for grant submissions.

Because I was new and eager for the work, I took on as many as I could. I later found out from the owner of the agency, that out of about 100 available freelance writers, only a handful would respond to emails about needs assessments.

What gives?

Here are some common reasons why many writers choose to pass when the opportunity comes up.

Most topics will be unfamiliar

If you’re a new medical writer, or even if you’ve been doing this for a while, you are likely going to write about new topics that you know nothing about. This can be super scary and intimidating.

One of the first needs assessments that I wrote was on the topic of subependymal giant cell astrocytomas (SEGAs) associated with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). [Ummm...what was that again?!] Trust me, I had never even heard of this topic and certainly didn’t know anything about it.

For most people, writing (and learning at the same time) is an instant turn-off.

Plentiful ≠ Easy

I’ve heard people in the medical writing industry refer to needs assessments as “low-hanging fruit” for new writers. So, in other words, they are thought of as projects that are easy to get from clients because there is a constant need (more on that in a moment).

However, plentiful does not equal easy. There will always be a learning curve.

Whether it’s because you’re learning about a new topic, or simply because you’re learning how to write an effective grant - the first time or two will probably be rough. This is true for most new things in life.

Most people simply don’t want to go through these growing pains.

There is a cap on pay

Most clients (even the good ones) have a cap on what they are willing to pay a writer for needs assessments. Because funding rates for any grant are usually pretty low, what the client pays is simply an out-of-pocket cost that may not be recovered.

The odds favor that any needs assessment that you write will NOT lead to program funding. Bummer.

And because most clients will ask you to write them based on a project fee, this limitation on pay can really bite into your hourly rate if you’re still working out the kinks in your process.  

While this can be a deterrent, realize that over time you’ll get faster and the whole process should get easier (especially if you work with the same clients). This should allow your hourly rate to creep back up to where it should be.

So, enough with what is perceived to be the bad stuff. Here are my counter-arguments to the points made above and the reasons that you should aim to include needs assessments as part of your writing arsenal.

Systems make it easier

Once you get a few of these under your belt, you’ll start to notice some patterns. You’ll see a pattern in the types of information that you should include, where to find that information, and how to make it all fit together into a cohesive argument.

You’ll find your own rhythms.

For me, this includes keeping a template on file that I use as a starting point. Also, because I’ve written so many, I always return to previous needs assessments if I need some additional direction or inspiration.

Your clients will also grow accustomed to your patterns and style of writing too. This can be a huge time saver for them when reviewing the document (trust me, I’ve asked) - they will know exactly what info to expect and where to find it. You’ll learn that certain patterns will make things easier for the client (and lead to more consistent work for you).

CME is cyclical in nature

CME is a massive, $2.7 billion/year industry and growing. You should fully be taking advantage of this as a medical writer. It’s a huge opportunity for you to gain new clients and new work.

What I think most people don’t realize is that CME as a business is cyclical (see below). Needs assessments lead to funding for program development, which leads to program outcomes and outcomes reports, and that data can be used again in needs assessments. There will ALWAYS be a demand for needs assessments to be written.

Write and Prosper | CME is as a business is cyclical

From a freelance perspective, one perk to writing needs assessments (and writing them well) is that it can place you in this continuous cycle of income from the client. And that eliminates the need to constantly market your services.

They can lead to bigger and better projects

Are needs assessments a stepping stone to bigger and better projects? You bet. Winning a grant is a big deal, and it establishes credibility for you. As I’ve talked about before, it’s all about building a rapport with your clients. They want to work with someone that they know, like, and trust. It’s about developing a partnership.

It’s very powerful to write something that brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars in CME funding. It’s a big deal.

If you can do that a handful of times (and hopefully more) for your clients, you’ll likely get catapulted from the “good” to “great” category. You’re golden.

And, if you’ve done your legwork in the needs assessment, a lot of the content can be repurposed when developing the program - making your life a whole lot easier.


Lately, so many of you have expressed interest in learning more about CME and writing needs assessments. Because of this interest, I’m developing a new course, How to Write Needs Assessments Like a Pro: Make your clients happy, write more grants that get funded, and stay in a loop of steady income.

I’m so excited to share my exact process for writing needs assessments, which has helped my clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in program funding and has helped me stay off of the marketing treadmill.

Just sign up below if you’d like to get on the waitlist for the course. Easy peasy.

Jennifer Gregg