Communication professionals understand the importance of using the right words, and the backlash or loss of business that can result from using the wrong ones. Here, three hospital marketers share tips on what language to use and avoid in healthcare marketing campaigns.
Editor’s Note: Answers have been edited slightly for clarity and style.
Susan Milford, senior vice president of marketing and communications at OSF HealthCare (Peoria, Ill.). We use person-centered language. People are more than a disorder, illness or disability, so when we write or talk about them we put people first. The use of person-centered language shows that OSF respects the dignity, worth, unique qualities and strengths of each individual.
For example: Children with asthma can also have allergies – not children with asthma. People with disabilities often need extra help – not disabled people. Dr. Doe specializes in treating people recovering from stroke – not stroke patients.
Avoid the word “normal” when talking about people. Normal is a subjective expression and means something different to everyone. Watch for expressions that include “normal” then “except”, “until” or “but”, such as a sentence like He may appear to be a normal 35-year-old man, except…
Avoid the word “patient” when possible. We prefer the terms people / person, child / children. It is acceptable to use it in quotation marks, when the audience is clinical or otherwise unavoidable.
Brian Deffaa. Marketing Director of LifeBridge Health (Baltimore). It may be less about the words we use and more about the story and the feeling we strive to convey to the consumer – and the brand space we create for LifeBridge Health. Consumers have more information than ever before, and most of the time, that’s a good thing. In the context of healthcare, our job is to give them both the real information they need to get them where they need to go. and leave them a feeling of real warmth and humanity. We work tirelessly to achieve this in as few words as possible with a clean, focused visual aesthetic to make it easier for the consumer to understand without too much visual clutter.
Once this framework is defined, we look for simple, accessible and benefit-oriented language. Healthcare has a (rightly) bad reputation for being opaque and frightening to many; we work to make it accessible, by encouraging engagement. We avoid words that could be interpreted as “judgey” or attempt to scare the consumer with what-if scenarios. Instead, we choose to focus on scenarios that develop a “taking care of yourself is taking care of them” mindset that again focuses on the future benefits of being proactive now.
Les Lifter, Marketing Director for Stanford Children’s Health (Menlo Park, Calif.). At Stanford Children’s Health, we examine consumer research to inform our message and language. Given the anxiety parents no doubt felt during COVID, we conducted a quick survey to better understand parents’ fears and concerns. Rather than determining what words or terms discouraged parents, we approached the survey from the perspective of understanding what parents want to hear from us during this time.
Following the survey, we reinforced the messages of accessibility to care via virtual visits; security protocols; the importance of not delaying care; and finally, that Stanford Children’s Health was there for them.