Why Medical Education Needs More Creativity

My Sudler & Hennessey advertising colleagues placed bets on whether I was the only representative from a medical education agency attending Cannes Lions Health … But who says medical education can't be creative too?

The speakers at Lions Health represented some of the largest and most respected communications companies worldwide. Talks focused on finding creative inspiration, challenges to innovation, optimal use of digital channels, regional differences in creativity, and so much more. All of these are key issues in medical education.

However, often in med ed we hesitate to use words like “story” or “message.” Our efforts for our clients are focused on educating, not marketing. But education can — and should — be creative! Creativity is not just found in great branding, but also in the way you approach your challenges and reach your audience. Many of the Lions Health winners this year addressed many of the same issues we face with our med ed clients, such as disease awareness, health literacy, and preventive health. And they did it in inspired and inspiring ways.

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A common thread among the Lions Health campaigns was the focus on the patient experience, because to me that is what medical education is all about: providing clinicians with comprehensive education and tools that will help them best care for — and talk to — their patients.

My favorite campaigns were those that helped improve understanding of the suffering of patients with debilitating diseases. Some of these campaigns sought to emulate and, thus, increase empathy for, the patient experience in creative ways. The clearest example is This Bike Has MS, which Grey Melbourne created for MS Melbourne Cycle, which brought together patients, healthcare providers, and bicycle mechanics to design a bike with bent wheels, missing gears, and bad brakes. The MS bike is hard to ride, and its functional challenges are similar to those endured by many patients with MS. The rationale behind the campaign was to raise awareness about a debilitating disease and make visible the symptoms that many of us don't understand or appreciate. What I like most about this campaign is that is allows anyone who has ever ridden a bike to empathize, even if they are just hearing the story. A simple but powerful metaphor makes the patient experience real.

It is this focus on the story of the patient that can inspire us — and be a source of creativity.

Also among the Lions Health winners were strong outreach campaigns directed to patients and healthcare providers to facilitate better communication about diseases that they may be reluctant to discuss, such as testicular cancer and urinary tract infections. In medical education, to fully communicate a scientific profile, we need to understand the human profile of how we learn, listen, and interact. This applies to both healthcare providers and patients and can be extended to medical education, as we help healthcare providers better understand — and treat — their patients. For example, there has been recent push among many accountable care organizations to reduce healthcare disparities through shared decision making, which encourages collaboration between patients and clinicians to jointly make healthcare decisions based on the patient's values and needs as well as clinical evidence available.

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Medical education agencies can help develop tools to train healthcare providers to understand the process and facilitate meaningful and productive dialogue with their patients. It is clear that creative educational programs that find memorable ways to elicit empathy for the patient experience would likely be most successful.

When educating doctors, our inspiration can and should be the patient, whose life may be improved by the appropriate diagnosis and treatment. We never want to forget that those we are trying to help are people first, patients second.

All medical education should include an element of empathy for the patient experience. And it is this personal connection that can be our source of creative inspiration.

Linda Schonberg is SVP and senior strategist at IntraMed Group.