It’s one thing to read about coronavirus or hear about it on TV and radio. It’s easy to be lulled into a sense that the disease is somehow an abstraction, affecting people on the other side of the planet but not really anything for us here in our quiet towns or even our big cities to worry about. Sure, people are stuck on cruise ships in Asia, or maybe quarantined on military bases out west. But nobody on New Jersey Transit has taken ill as far as I know, so there’s really nothing for me to worry about.

But it’s quite another to start to move around, however closer to the epicenter of the outbreak, and to start to see the precautions people are taking and how day-to-day life can be affected.

Some examples: I recently flew to California to speak at a conference. Pretty much all I could think about as I boarded the plane, bleary-eyed, at Newark was how much work I had to do during the flight and if six hours would be enough to do everything I needed to. (It wasn’t, which is why I’m writing this column in a hotel room when I should be downstairs mingling with the other conference-goers.) But I was shaken out of my isolation when a young woman sat next to me, wearing not just a surgical mask, but a mega-surgical mask, complete with rubber gaskets to make sure her seal was extra-tight. She kept it on for the entire six-hour flight. As I walked the aisles to stretch my legs, I counted 30 masks of various sizes and strengths on a plane carrying almost 300 people. It seemed extreme, but this is an extreme outbreak. And regular old flu can be pretty nasty.

When I arrived at the conference, I was greeted by more Purell dispensers than I’ve ever seen in one place. Makes sense. After all, it’s a health-related conference. What I wasn’t ready for, however, was the sign saying “It’s Nice to See You. It’s Nice to Meet You. Let’s Not Shake.” I guess it takes a global epidemic to move a conference from glad-handing to bad-handing. (Everybody was shaking hands anyway.)

There’s a lesson in all this that’s really important for healthcare marketers and those who write about them to keep in mind: Nothing drives home reality more effectively than personal experience. Somehow figuring out a way to harness the strength of experience to drive outcomes is the holy grail of healthcare marketing. It’s why personal stories are usually so effective in marketing. 

So let’s make a deal to use more of this kind of marketing. Just not a hand-shake deal.