When it comes to life-threatening medical conditions, the symptoms of a stroke may not be as recognizable as a heart attack, but they can have significant effects on a patient if not treated immediately.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month and highlighting the risks around instances of “brain attack” has never been so timely. In 2022 alone, two Democratic senators, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, suffered strokes. Additionally, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman suffered a stroke days before winning the state’s Democratic Senate primary earlier this month. 

The recent examples of high-profile politicians suffering from strokes has brought renewed coverage to a medical condition that afflicts nearly 800,000 people per year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

Dr. Michael Chen, president of the Society of NeuroInterventional Surgery (SNIS), said strokes are a “big problem,” noting that it is a leading cause of adult disability. Unlike heart attacks, which often present as severe chest pain and shortness of breath, Chen said that symptoms of a stroke can be variable, which complicates the timeline for when a patient requests and ultimately receives medical care.

“The most important message would be if somebody notices a loss of function concerning a stroke, call 911,” Chen said. “That will immediately get the process in motion, such that the emergency room or the stroke team can be notified and a treatment can potentially be delivered as fast as possible. The brain is holding its breath; the longer you wait, the lower the chance that you can have a good recovery or treatment.”

SNIS is focused on promoting awareness around strokes, which is why it launched “Get Ahead of Stroke,” a national public education and advocacy effort designed to “improve systems of care for stroke patients.”

Following the strokes suffered by Van Hollen and Fetterman, the Get Ahead campaign emphasized the need for updated stroke care protocols that include access to life-saving thrombectomies. Chen said that the campaign’s push to update protocols for first responders also emphasizes the need for paramedics to be trained to detect stroke severity.

He added that the most important message for medical marketers is that stroke care is not being managed effectively in terms of triage protocols related to trauma. 

“Getting that message and consistency out there is challenging, but we’ll keep repeating the message and then it becomes something more along the lines of trauma. That’s where we want to be,” Chen said.

Dr. Bruce Ovbiagele is a volunteer expert at the American Stroke Association as well as a professor of neurology and associate dean at the University of California, San Francisco.

When it comes to messaging around strokes, Ovbiagele said that there are three things the public should know: What strokes are, how to prevent them and how to potentially reverse them. He said another important aspect of stroke awareness is acknowledging that most stroke survivors have a residual deficit – but that it’s not always a death sentence for patients.

Ovbiagele believes that having prominent stroke survivors or patient influencers speaking about their experiences and recovery processes can help remove the stigma around strokes.

“While it’s important to survive a stroke, it’s also important to recover to where patients are able to be functionally independent,” Ovbiagele said. 

As with any awareness campaign, medical marketers should examine the pain points facing their target audience and prioritize a message that offers both solutions and education, according to Brianne Carlon Rush, VP of operations at Kuno Creative.

In 2020, Rush published a blog post about the marketing effort for a client, RapidAI, leveraging technology to improve stroke care. While it can be a complicated topic to convey, Rush said that marketers should always aim to keep the human side of the story front and center. 

“You have to understand your audience,” Rush said. “Whether you’re talking to people in the community that have loved ones that could be at risk for stroke or if you’re trying to market to a neuro specialist, everybody’s got a challenge that they need to overcome.”