As medical writers, we have to balance what we can and can’t say in terms of legal guidelines and patient information. Our limitations are evident because we need to balance the science, the client and the delivery method.
Pushed up against design constraints and word limits. The threads of marketing and science intertwine.
It’s often like juggling buttered hedgehogs on a unicycle, blindfolded.
Our role of universal translator of the science to the layperson is not without its perils, either. We’re all aware that misrepresentation could lead to lawsuits. Misplaced words could unwittingly invite patient injury and potential death. We err on the side of caution while acting as a universal translator of thought, concept and fact.
We recognise as professional medical writers that science doesn’t give 100% guarantees. We need to make absolutely certain our sentence structure does not derail this.
And it’s a complex and difficult see-saw to straddle at times.
Hard up against that, we face bloggers and internet forums. Doctor Google and the bloggers are alluring to the scared patient. The one’s who have bootstrapped their knowledge and seen it firsthand. They aren’t tethered to guidelines or measuring the practical against the theoretical. They’ve somehow managed to ‘fix’ the science armed with a blender and some choice Instagram shots. They’ve got the “you’re like me” X-factor in spades.
People cheerfully follow because it’s sexier and simpler. But they also follow because they have a native suspicion of science. The times that science got it wrong and/or got the messaging wrong litter our media and history. So too does the resentment towards the commercialisation of many aspects of medicine. Hell, they may even resent the knowledge a doctor has, too.
There are plenty of pot-shots you can take at medicine.
It’s far easier to lean on faith. Inventing connections between what we see and choose to listen to is far easier to face.
Juice cures cancer because someone once had cancer, did all the right things and also drank juice. Ergo, carrots are nature’s chemo.
That’s a lot easier to explain then the role of correlation and causation within patient treatment.
Much easier to digest over a latte and a muffin too.
Humans are also cursed with a love of certainty. We want conclusive proof and the happy ending. To have a plan and venture forth with steps and lance in hand when fighting the evils of illness, disease and death is our biggest story time favourite. Humans ‘prevail because we do’ is a message in our culture, in business and in life. We want to scrap and soldier on.
Yet illness reduces our capacity for action. We often have to defer control to another party. And it makes the reality of the dark and messy nature of illness and potential death so much the bitter pill to swallow.
So how do you balance science against the dogged determination of the individual to have fail-safe certainty? And what does that mean for a medical writer stuck in the middle?
The jury is still out. It’s a big science based issue so there are no 100% foolproof answers here. But there are a few things we can do to promote solid communication as opposed to fan the fires of fear.
Think like a scared patient
People begin to ask Doctor Google when they show symptoms and/or receive a diagnosis. Their individual journey with information is influenced by friends, family members and what they all find.
As we write medical content, we need to make sure the information we provide answers questions better. That it directs the scared patient towards touch points that provide the appropriate information. And encourages them to talk to their doctor beyond the “please consult your physician” tagline.
In short, it’s up to us to train the reader to seek good solid answers.
We need to be far more transparent about the limitations medical language has. That any scientist, doctor or medical researcher worth their salt will not give 100% answers. Or rely on personal experience as proof.
It’s up to us to show how ridiculous relying on “I did this and you should too” as an answer for any health related question.
One person’s discovery doesn’t replace decades of theory and testing.
K.I.S.S. when it comes to the reasons
Writing medical content isn’t simple. But the reasons why we adopt the approach we do can be boiled down to simple messages.
We know choosing soft watery words like may and can allow enough room for the reality of science to breathe. Yet we have to recognise and understand the role these words play in breeding false hope or denial.
And admit this openness weakens the argument of the medical professional. Pitted against the strong-willed pulpit of the blogger, medicine looks unsure. Or like it’s hedging its bets or deserving of cynicism and suspicion.
Instead, we should be using the blogger’s own hard-nosed certainty against them. Show how one person does not a study make. Highlight the lack of checking the science and the vulnerability.
What appears to be our biggest challenge is our greatest asset.
The last thing we wish to do is misrepresent the science, mislead patients or cause harm as a result. This is an overlooked superpower medicine has over those who don’t have to adhere to any standards.
We can explain why we use the language that we do. Explain the difference between belief and science. Demonstrate how we verify the information. Put the claims by others that lack the science under pressure tests.
Give reason to the debate without forgetting the human elements so deeply ingrained in the reader. Sell it to them.
Think like the lazy patient
Humans suck at looking after their health at the best of times. We’ve heard the message of basic nutrition yet still ignore it in favour of the fad diet. It isn’t intriguing. No one will ask “what does that entail?” over lunch if it’s what we already know.
So instead, we eat like cavemen. It’s cool to demonise gluten. We have no problem with making people like Adkins diet inventor a millionaire. Or forgiving Food Babe for getting some claims wrong in favour of what she might get right.
Someone needs to invent a nutritious ear-worm of a pop song. Or not. We’d probably sing the lyrics wrong anyway. Invent over them Weird Al Yankovic style with a love of kale and coconut charcoal.
We may hate that the health news is bland. Yet we still want a straight forward approach to the fix. We want the doctor to treat us like a robot. To scoop out the bad parts and replace the new. Zap, zap! Done! Next!
And when medical literature instead advocates for the boring health messages, you can bet your advice is in danger of losing its appeal.
But as medical writers, we can:
- Avoid impenetrable medical and scientific terms. Don’t give patients an excuse to end up on Google chasing down the meaning
- Understand the limitations of the individual and get them seeking a support network
- Educate the families to act as backup on the day to day messaging. Give them language they can use
- Actively seek to bust the myths that take the individual off the hook for their own health
- Open the door to seeking psychological help as part of all medical treatments
- Cross that native separation between medical and surgical and start bringing the pieces together
Keeping it honest, real and focussed helps with credibility.
Recognise the difference between medical terms and real life usage
Patients often experience information overload. They feel it through shock of diagnosis and the sheer amount of info to take in. The influence of Doctor Google and others doesn’t help the situation.
There’s a difference between allowing someone to make an informed choice and drowning them in information. The problem is the human nature is to cherry pick what they want to hear and close their ears to what they don’t.
We won’t get heard if we don’t get human.
Making it approachable, bringing in a fascination and hope with the science as opposed to fear is paramount.
Use the cumbersome beast that is science to your benefit
We need to speak to people like they are when they are at the most vulnerable.
Honest, forthright, approachable and friendly communication is a must. And we need to remove the cloaks around why we choose the language we do. Make the process behind that selection far more transparent.
Above all else, we need to remember that scared human. One who is dealing with a reality that is alien to them.
We speak directly to the person who doesn’t remember a word their doctor said but has been staring at the ceiling. Who wants to start dealing with their impending journey through illness and disease in a positive and informed manner. Who is assessing their mortality and/or aware of their own frailty.
And will only begin to do so based on the quality of the information we provide.
Rebekah Lambert is a freelance marketer and content creator. She’s worked with countless small businesses, freelancers and startups to give life to campaigns, content and websites as Unashamedly Creative. She has a keen interest in the impact of stress and mental health issues on Australia’s business scene. So much so, she founded Hacking Happiness to remind all the hard-working people of the world that stress has a productivity cost. She’s the founder of solopreneur networking group, The Freelance Jungle, and is an active member of the small business advisory council for Beyond Blue’s Heads Up initiative. You can follow her journey via Twitter, Facebook and Google+.