Medical-writer Turned Patient: Tips on Empathy in Content

Aha Media Group writer Teri Cettina switched roles, from health copywriter to patient, when she was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.

I had just finished a project for a children’s hospital website. It was a tough job. After all, medical writing requires a delicate balance. We need to provide clear, useful information while conveying empathy for scared patients and families.

Less than a month later, I received my own scary medical diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. The day after my emergency room visit, I was on the internet trying to slog through information about the latest pancreatic cancer treatment options.

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For the first time, I was on the opposite side of the medical writing process: the audience rather than the writer. Instead of crafting words to educate and encourage others, I was reading someone else’s words in hopes of saving my own life. To say that I was terrified and overwhelmed is an understatement.

As I researched and read health websites, there was copy that touched me and copy that frightened me so much that I immediately closed the page.

How can you write the first kind and avoid the second? These are my “insider tips” for using empathy in marketing:

Don’t Flash Scary Statistics (Because I’ll Leave Your Page)

Early on, I realized I couldn’t research pancreatic cancer by myself. The first paragraph of almost every online article highlighted the disease’s dismal survival statistics. I literally had to blur my eyes or cover those awful paragraphs with my arm so I could read through to the info I needed. Many times, I simply left a website if the information was presented in a frightening way.

Tip for hospital marketing teams: Please, please don’t put scary statistics at the beginning of your articles. To use empathy in marketing, put them in a separate link that patients can choose to read only if they want to.

Make It Easy for Readers to Find Their Way Back to You

Being a medical writer gave me a slight edge when it came to research. At Aha Media, I work with a team of other excellent healthcare writers. So one of the first things I did was ask two of them to help me.

They immediately started researching the best U.S. hospitals for pancreatic cancer treatment and how to find clinical trials. They cut and pasted relevant information and emailed it to me, deleting scary statistics or other details I didn’t need — or want — to know.

Tip for hospital marketing teams: If your readers might do the same — copy and paste from your site into a separate document — make sure your web URL is automatically pasted along with the text. This is known as automatic link attribution. It can help readers remember where they originally got the helpful information.

Toot Your Own Horn

If your organization is a national leader in a particular treatment, help me understand why you’re so outstanding. Spell it out, even if you think everyone already knows you’re the best. I was amazed at how well-known hospitals talked vaguely about their top-level pancreatic programs.

Tips for hospital marketing teamscreating pediatric content

  • Connect the dots: This kind of copy tells me not just THAT you’re the best but WHY: “If you need specialized pancreatic surgery, go to a hospital that does thousands of Whipple operations every year. At Our Great Hospital, we complete approximately 2,000 of these surgeries annually. As a result, we’ve developed innovative methods for keeping you safe during surgery.”
  • Analyze statistics: Bonus points if you can tell me how I can compare surgical stats from other hospitals to yours. Point out where I can unearth statistics showing that my local hospital only does about 15 Whipple surgeries a year, so I can compare it to your 2,000.

Highlight the Value of Second Opinions

By using empathy in marketing content, help me understand why it may make sense to go beyond my trusted local doctors and see you for a second opinion. Explain how your organization is up to speed on the most cutting-edge treatment options, some of which aren’t widely available.

As a scared patient, I don’t want to insult my local doctor. I’m afraid they’ll drop me as a patient if I mention seeing another expert. I need to hear that second opinions are smart and expected and won’t compromise my relationship with my primary physician.

In my case, I consulted with a pancreatic medical oncologist (chemotherapy specialist) in Seattle. I also traveled to see a pancreatic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Both of these national experts helped guide my treatment with my local oncologist in Portland, Oregon. They’ve also given me great peace of mind: I can rest assured knowing that I’m getting the best possible treatment for pancreatic cancer.

And in case you’re wondering, my local oncologist anticipated and supported my decision to get these second opinions. Reputable doctors don’t get insulted when you seek expert help. In fact, they welcome it.

My doc told me upfront: “My responsibility is to help you get the best possible care, even if that means sending you to see someone else.”

Tips for hospital marketing team:

  • If you offer second opinions, make that clear in your web copy. And make sure your second-opinion process is as easy as possible for the patient. We are scheduling dozens of appointments with specialists.Hearing a nurse navigator say on the phone, “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll gather all the information we need. You just make your travel plans,” was enough to make me cry with relief.
  • Have your patients’ best interests and outcomes in mind: If patients often leave your medical facility to get second opinions elsewhere, ask yourself: Do your doctors exude compassion and trust like my local doctor did? Are they willing to tell patients, “I want you to get the best care, even if that means sending you to see someone other than me”?If not, train them to do so. Doctors who speak this way inspire patients’ trust and loyalty. You’ll see those patients again.

I’ll share more of my experiences as a medical-writer-turned-patient in upcoming blogs. Follow Aha Media Group on Facebook and LinkedIn to see more of my posts on empathetic marketing.

About Teri Cettina

Teri Cettina

Teri Cettina has written about financial issues, parenting and health for more than 20 years. She deftly handles both consumer-oriented and business-to-business content. Her byline has appeared in major newsstand magazines, including Real Simple, Reader’s Digest, Parents and Working Mother. Teri also creates strategic, d... More >