Content Marketing

The 5 Rules for Creating Ridiculously Good Healthcare Content

In her recent book Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Ridiculously Good Content, Ann Handley of urges writers to swap places with their readers. “Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn’t self-indulgent. Good writing anticipates the questions that readers might have as they’re reading a piece, and it answers them.”

Can this approach also be applied to healthcare communications? What would happen if we tried to swap places with our patients and were to view our content through their eyes? To begin with, we can frame Handley’s definition of good writing in terms of patient education and healthcare marketing:

Good healthcare content serves the patient, not the brand. It isn’t self-indulgent or overly complex. Good healthcare content anticipates the questions patients might have as they encounter challenges along their healthcare journey, and it answers them.

This definition of good healthcare content seems like an admirable starting point, but what are some practical steps for creating content that will actually be read and understood by real humans? What should we keep in mind to really see things from the patient perspective?

1. It’s All About Time
For most patients, their sense of time has been altered, whether they have been thrown off of their day-to-day routine by some minor illness, or, more significantly, when they are faced with a life-threatening condition. Among the many things pressing for their attention, reading or watching a jargon-filled promotional piece is not likely high on the list. Keep your messaging concise and to the point. Not only does this make for better communication, but it also allows patients get back to other more important things.

In addition to respecting a patient’s time, a sense of timing is equally important. Do you know how soon after a diagnosis or procedure you should reach out to a patient? How often does the patient want to hear from you after that? How quickly does the patient expect you to respond if he or she reaches out with a question? Take the time to learn ideal and appropriate timing surrounding these key communication milestones, and watch your marketing impact soar.

2. No Two Patients Are Alike
As much as we’d like to create a one-size-fits-all marketing message, or speak to several carefully scripted “patient personas,” the reality is that each patient experiences his or her illness in ways that are incredibly personal and unique. This means that content navigation for patients should provide many alternate pathways. While it is comforting for us to think that patients will follow our prescribed message scenarios, in reality, people will naturally gravitate to what’s important to them in each particular moment. Prepare for the fact that no two patients are alike, and you won’t be surprised when your content marketing is not followed “as planned.”

3. No Fake Listening
There have been great technological strides made in terms of “social listening,” allowing marketing teams to glean detailed insights about all types of patient sentiments and behaviors. However, it is important to realize that simply gathering data (even “big” data) about what patients might be saying is not the same as actually taking the time to listen to their stories.

In her book Narrative Medicine: Honoring Stories of Illness, Rita Charon writes that “Listening for stories is what we in healthcare must learn to do. To listen for stories, we have to know, first of all, that stories are being told. We have to notice metaphors, images, allusions to other stories, genre, mood—the kinds of things that literary critics recognize in novels or poems….Conventional medical care has not considered this kind of listening to be its responsibility.”

Healthcare marketers should also embrace this kind of listening. This approach which requires sitting down in person with actual patients, does not come naturally to brand teams, who are typically focused on, and evaluated upon their outbound content. However, the results of this deep listening can have a profound impact on the messages and content you create for patients. Take the time to really listen to actual patients.

4. Health Literacy Is Rare
At South by Southwest 2015, Christina Mullen of Cadient presented on “Hacking Health Literacy.” While studies show that 99% of Americans have an elementary level of literacy, the statistics for health literacy paint a more challenging picture:

  • One in two patients cannot read a drug label
  • Nine in 10 patient have difficulty using everyday health information
  • 50 percent of patients leave the doctor not knowing what to do or what they were told

In the face of this health literacy challenge, here are three Health Literacy Hacks that can help improve patients’ overall comprehension of your content:

Simplify – Break down complex language and create a story that is easy to understand.

Visualize – Design the important aspects of the disease as an eye-catching infographic experience.

Play – Enhance digital tools with interactivity that makes learning easy and fun.

5. Keep the Conversation Going
By taking a human-forward approach to your marketing content, patients should begin to engage in some type of a conversational relationship with you. This is a great milestone for any brand, but the real challenge is to keep the conversation going. Conversation in the social space can be even more difficult for regulated brands, but is by no means impossible. This article in Pharma Compliance Monitor shows how recent FDA guidance has helped to clarify some of the challenges.

Even if a brand successfully follows FDA regulations, it still takes work and creativity to maintain a conversation. Just like a real conversation, there are certain phrases and pacing that can help to keep the “flow” on track. Anthony Lauder, an English polyglot who has documented his struggles to learn Czech, offers insights into these “conversational intimacy connectors” ( that can be used to both establish a relationship and engage the listener. Lauder “…practiced these phrases dozens (maybe even hundreds) of times until [he] could say them automatically, without having to put any effort into thinking about them.”

The brand equivalent of these “conversational intimacy connectors” is to create a set of 10 or 20 regulatory-approved comments and responses that can be shared with patients at particular moments by anticipating their questions. These phrases can be as simple as “We are sorry to hear about your experience with product X. Please get in touch with our medical affairs team at _____”. They can be even more specific, for example, “That is not the correct way to _______.  Please contact your healthcare professional for more details.”

Just like you’d prepare for an important conversation with your boss, take the time to really imagine the types of conversational intimacy connectors needed to keep the dialogue going with your patients. Armed with some conversational connectors, new platforms such as Intercom allow you to interact with customers individually, as well as at scale.

In today’s media-rich world, there is no shortage of healthcare content. The challenge is to create ridiculously good and timely content, which can be done by seeing things from the patient’s point of view. Keeping these five guidelines in mind will help you to gain and maintain this critical patient perspective:

1. It’s All About Time – respect patients’ time and develop a sense of timing.
2. No Two Patients Are Alike – create flexible navigation and a flexible approach.
3. No Fake Listening – take the time to speak with actual patients.
4. Health Literacy Is Rare – use images and simplified text to convey your message.
5. Keep the Conversation Going –  anticipate questions and have a set of approved content ready so you can respond quickly and naturally.



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Jim Walker

Jim Walker

Jim Walker is Director, Marketing Strategy at Cadient, a Cognizant Company. Jim provides innovative marketing insights for a wide range of clients, as well as leading Cadient’s content marketing strategy. He is particularly interested in helping brand teams effectively leverage their digital content. He can be reached at
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