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Posted on Sep 23, 2013 in Articles

A Plea For Radical Honesty in Healthcare Writing

A Plea For Radical Honesty in Healthcare Writing


With the move towards content marketing and the increasing demand to do better in search engine rankings, many healthcare website are feeling the pressure to turn into mini medical publishing houses. But what to write about?

Lots of sites have some sort of health encyclopedia that they white-label from a company like Krames-Staywell or use with branding attached to get a halo effect from a place like Mayo or Cleveland Clinic. But this stuff just doesn’t have the SEO juice it used to have. And besides, as the popular refrain now goes: We’re not trying to be WebMD.

So if we’re not a health encyclopedia, but we want to cover health info for our patients, what are we offering up? How do we move beyond a thinly veiled sales pitch for our own doctors and services?

For years, the default answer had been “wellness” content, those wishy-wash articles discussing the benefits of eating more whole grains, wearing sun block or coming in for an annual prostate exam. They make us feel better about ourselves as healthcare marketers, but they are toothless. They’re safe and they’re boring.

Instead, I’d like to see more writing on hospital websites that is actionable and helps people make decisions. It should do so in a way that involves radical honesty on the part of the institution, and a faith in the reader to deal with complex truths.

What about articles like these:

1. Do I really need this test?

We have a tendency to say “yes” to any test or procedure a doctor recommends without discussing the true payoff or drawbacks. Especially for scans that involve exposure to radiation or x-rays, it’s a legitimate question to ask if the scan is really necessary, or if it’s just a CYA (cover you’re a**) precaution. I took my daughter in to get a cast on her arm removed. A lady at the front desk started setting us up to have the arm x-rayed one a last time. Another woman stopped her and asked me, “Do you really want to have another x-ray? Wouldn’t you rather talk to the doctor first?” And it was as though a big neon sign spelling out the word “Duh” had been illuminated above my head. OF COURSE I wanted to speak with the doctor before getting one more x-ray! I honestly didn’t realize I had that option.

2. End of life options that most doctors don’t want done for themselves

Most people think that they should do everything that is medically possible to save a loved one. And sometimes that’s appropriate. But sometimes the actions taken to save someone are actually much, much worse than letting the person pass. Studies of doctors found that the vast majority of them did NOT want extreme measures taken to sustain them at end of life. It would be great if patients could have some greater insight into what these procedures actually entail, and why the docs themselves feel they are bad options.

3. Things we just don’t know about [fill in the blank]

We don’t do a good job pointing out the holes in our own medical knowledge. We do an even worse job in walking back form clinical areas where we were dead wrong. Let’s create disease or condition-specific articles about the gaps in our current understanding of the problem and any missteps or false starts in trying to find a treatment.

4. Why generic drugs are great

Healthcare professionals buy generics far more frequently than the rest of us. So why aren’t doctors and nurses doing a better job to advocate for these cheaper pharmaceutical equivalents? What built-in biases or assumptions should healthcare providers be trying to overcome?

5. What to do if you think your doctor isn’t listening to you

It’s no secret that some doctors just suck at listening to their patients. There are several reasons why this might be the case, but because of the power imbalance, many patients find themselves too intimidated to speak up and advocate for themselves. It would be great to have a list of techniques and strategies to ensure that you feel heard by your physician.

6. How to make sense of your internet medical research

Ask any doctor and they’ll tell you that patients are walking in to their offices with stacks of printed internet research, ready to diagnose themselves. What if these doctors helped give suggestions of what to look out for when researching diseases or conditions on the internet? Tips like  how to identify trusted sources or spot bogus claims. Though I know many docs get frustrated by this armchair quarterbacking, its not a fad that will go away. Better to partner and help patients make sense of this research, rather than resent them for doing so.

7. You don’t need a rock star

This is something that was actually said to me by a rock-star physician in my own health system and I found it incredibly refreshing: Most people don’t need a rock-star physician. Most cases are simply not that complicated. Yes, yes, we are all unique and special snowflakes, but the vast majority of people will get great care from physicians who haven’t been on the nightly news or in some Top Docs rankings. I’d love to see articles in each field addressing the fact that there are lots of excellent doctors out there, and you don’t always need to try and get in to see the chairman of the department.

The people who provide and receive care in our facilities make brave choices about complex subjects all of the time. Shouldn’t we write content that strives to do the same?