6 Storytelling Rules for Better Patient Communication

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Publishers of digital content face daily challenges for the attention of readers. Most are bombarded with social updates, “snackable” mobile content and clickbait headlines that drive readers to low-quality “news” sites.

For content providers reaching those who suffer from health conditions, the stakes are even higher. These patients and their loved ones have particularly urgent needs, and some may be seeking life-saving information. This specialized audience needs the highest-quality, most accurate and sensitively-crafted content to make informed choices. But that same content has to be as visually engaging and interactive as possible to attract and keep viewers.

Create a story for your brand that's engaging, real and authentic. Recognized storytelling technique asks that we put ourselves into our readers' shoes when crafting content. Consider telling your story from your readers' point of view, and ask yourself what they would want to know. Understanding their needs will help you create the most relatable messaging.

Here are six ways to create meaningful condition-specific content on any web platform.

Be authentic with patients. People today can spot inauthenticity almost instantly. A study by Cohn & Wolfe cited that 63% of consumers would choose a company they believe to be authentic over its competitors. Would consumers believe a sugary cereal is healthy, or gas-guzzling cars are better for the environment?  Any message that appears contrived screams inauthenticity and could potentially hurt your brand. Earlier this year, Pepsi featured Kendall Jenner in a now infamous ad which showed the model at a rally handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. It was perceived as culturally insensitive and an “authenticity mismatch” for the brand. Pepsi later came out saying the campaign was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.” But the audience wasn't buying it. Similarly, when communicators are crafting content for patients in need of information, it's critical to keep brand authenticity in mind and meet – or exceed – patient expectations. Patients want to know they can trust their physicians and the messages they deliver.

Avoid unconscious bias in communications. Physicians are trained to avoid any bias that may affect their care. Those who provide medically sound content should do the same. An unconscious bias in healthcare writing can result in content that reads favorably or unfavorably toward an ethnicity, gender, age or socio-economic status. Unrecognized bias may affect communication and providers must work hard to rid their work of any dislikes or stereotypes that don't have a place in healthcare writing. We see evidence of unconscious bias in many everyday examples such as gender differences in treating certain conditions. According to  Dr. Christine Kolehmainen, the associate director for women's health at the Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, WI, physicians are sometimes guilty of taking women's symptoms less seriously, interpreting them as having an emotional cause as opposed to a physical one.  Studies bear this out: in one study of patients with irritable bowel syndrome, doctors were more likely to suggest that male patients receive X-rays but to offer females anti-anxiety medication and lifestyle advice. We ask our editors to read for anything discourteous or tone-deaf, which helps eliminate biased communication.

Make meaningful and effective use of audio and visual content. Research overwhelmingly shows that the average reader gains much more from a story with images or video, as well as sound clips to better bring a story to life. In fact, 55% of people watch videos online every day. And this year, it's predicted that online video will account for 74% of all online traffic. But the real challenge is determining what video will resonate for a patient who needs answers about a condition. Is an in-depth exploration of the stomach too graphic for someone with an ulcer? Will a cancer patient be helped by a conversation with a survivor? How effective are doctor “explainers?” Researching the target audience and really understanding the nuances of the market will go a long way towards providing medical content that engages and spurs action on the patient's part.

Show empathy. Nowhere in the content universe is the use of empathic communications more important than in discussions of health and medical decisions. The providers of condition-specific medical information don't have the same permissions as some other sites with lighter news fare. The sites that recognize and understand the psychological impact that medical news has on a patient's physical and mental well-being will win the day. Vetting language through real patients and healthcare providers is a litmus test for creating a sensitively crafted story with real impact.

Keep it simple. Overuse of jargon can kill a story. To professionals, experts and specialists, “inside baseball” terms may be everyday parlance. But to the patient seeking answers, the very same words will seem off-putting and foreboding. Beyond the word for their own condition, “Psoriatic Arthritis” or “COPD,” no one looking for medical advice should have the added anxiety of having to Google the words in a piece of digital content. We picked up this advice from the countless doctors and other healthcare pros who advise our writing and talk to patients on a daily basis who tell them, loud and clear, “give me simple information.” But not too simple; patients also tell professionals not to patronize or talk down to them. Striking a balance is key.

Incorporate user feedback. Reader surveys are the single best tool for evaluating content and discovering what to tweak to improve. We've learned of gaps in our coverage that have inspired the creation of new patient stories and even new products on our site. Knowing the patient's opinion of his experience and acting on that learning is invaluable and will help increase patient engagement and loyalty. A patient satisfaction survey is a strong tool for assessing the effectiveness of content and a great way to foster communication with readers. And isn't that what a successful media platform needs to do?

Finally, it's important to remember that anyone can tell a story, but telling a great story is key.


Jim Curtis is president of Remedy Health Media. 



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