A perfect storm: the impact of cost-cutting, coupled with a churn and burn culture on pharmaceutical transcription


A National Health Service under strain and looking to cut costs, coupled with a churn and burn culture sweeping the transcription industry, means we’ve reached a perfect storm.

The accuracy of audio transcription is never more important than in the medical/pharmaceutical industry. Mistakes and typos can have serious consequences, whether it’s a Patient Reported Outcome, or pharmaceutical research that’s invalidated. Yet, often, that level of accuracy is not where it needs to be.

Advancing technology is sometimes hailed as the answer; a way to eradicate human error whilst saving money and time. Automation and other new technologies are being increasingly adopted across all areas of healthcare with this aim. But while technology does have the potential to make improvements, the assumption that it will automatically do so, is naïve at best. At worst, it sets a dangerous precedent.

Automated transcription programmes encounter a number of pitfalls. Whilst they can be ideal for single speaker recordings, when it comes to multi-speaker sessions, over-talking, accents or dialects, quality and accuracy often suffers.

Those who do still use transcription companies are unfortunately all too often met with a similar experience. There’s a growing number of transcription companies who also rely on this type of software, or worse still, outsource their orders offshore. Editing and proofreading really do need to be delivered as standard when it comes to transcription in any industry, but when it comes to medical or pharmaceutical transcription, there’s a level of industry knowledge needed as well.

Familiarity with industry terminology

We’re all au fait with the infamous below-knee/bologna incident, but it serves to remind us of an important point; you can’t recognise words you’ve had no exposure to.

Research shows that people generally take an average of 17 exposures to learn a word. Different studies debate the actual number of repetitions of a word needed before it enters the long-term memory of the brain, but it’s generally agreed to be somewhere between 15-20, and that these encounters need to happen in a variety of ways at different times.

Hearing the word, as well as reading it is important, as is coming across it in different contexts. By actually understanding the term, you are more likely to remember it, and be sure it’s being used in the correct context – after all, the work of a transcriber is more complex than simply typing up what is heard in a voice file – they are responsible for checking the accuracy of the terminology too.

It stands to reason – if you listened to an audio clip of people talking in a different language it’s unlikely you’d be able to recall any of it. Familiarity with terminology, as well as medical abbreviations, is a key reason why industry knowledge is so important.

Pharmaceutical advisory boards and the role of audio transcription

The role of a medical transcriber is never more challenging, (or more crucial!), than when documenting pharmaceutical advisory boards. These boards play a vital role in furthering the pharma industry, hosting experts – often virtually – from across the globe, facilitating the sharing of ground-breaking data and opinions.

Documenting this information is essential. These meetings play a key part in decision-making, but they can be particularly difficult to transcribe. As well as having to listen to multiple speakers with different accents, there will be drugs and diseases mentioned in native tongues that require research to understand. There’s also an added pressure to ensure compliance with rules set out by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Code of Practice.

Again, it’s having that knowledge of the industry and experience in this sector that ensures pharmaceutical client material is transcribed appropriately. Misrepresentation can lead to invalid data being presented.

Accuracy is key for insurance claims

Another reason that industry knowledge and familiarity is so important, is that consistency within pharmaceutical transcription is so crucial when it comes to insurance pay-outs. Inaccurate documents could leave you unprotected. The same is also true when it comes to protecting healthcare providers from lawsuits and legal battles.

Detail is key, especially as transcripts often form the main evidence of a claim. Again, not only must these records contain all relevant information, they need to be accurate, and properly formatted so that the information is instantly received and recognised.

Accurate and thorough transcription delivers high quality data to drug companies

Aside from medical practitioners, patients and insurance companies, pharmaceutical research companies also stand to gain from accurate, descriptive transcription.

Often, minor side effects not indicated in laboratory testing are picked up through Patient Reported Outcomes. These PROs can indicate the overall effectiveness of a new drug, crucially flagging up any potential dangers by recording details of the patient’s experience. This provides a really valuable, more rounded picture of how any given drug performs.

More and more importance is being placed on patient trials, and it’s a move that makes a lot of sense; transcripts of qualitative patient interviews pass high quality data to drug companies, aiding the development of new drugs.

It’s also cost-effective – bringing a new drug to market is time-consuming and costly, so it makes sense to take advantage of patient interview transcription – but only if these are accurate or the data becomes invalid.

If accuracy is paramount, why are we in this situation?

There’s no doubt that the transcription industry has seen a change in recent years. A rise in the number of cheap, quick turnaround companies has led to issues over quality. Often work is outsourced overseas, or is completed using auto software, or just simply not proofread. These companies are able to offer cheap prices and fast completion deadlines. But a phonetically spelt transcript is not really any use to anyone!

This in itself alters expectations. Clients aren’t willing to pay more when they have so many cheaper alternatives, and they expect everything to be done instantly. Because the norm has changed, they can’t be expected to understand the time it takes to produce accurate transcripts, or to edit and proofread a document until you can be completely satisfied. They also don’t realise the financial implications of hiring or working with experienced professionals who do not have sufficient training as a medical transcriptionist.

Let’s be frank, cutting corners isn’t exclusive to the transcription industry – we’ve become a society that wants everything done yesterday. We don’t take the time to listen and do things properly, so in some respects our industry has become a victim of the times.

But it’s clear a change is needed. We’ve reached a tipping point. We all need to pull together to improve the quality of pharmaceutical transcription, from industry bodies implementing more regulations, to pharmaceutical companies taking the time to do their research when selecting a provider.

The biggest onus is on us, the transcription companies though. We have a responsibility to make the importance of industry knowledge and accuracy known, as well as to support new people coming into the profession and make sure they have the training and support they need through their career.

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