September 6, 2018

When Words Alienate Patients

Our use of language in healthcare marketing is a key differentiator as a species. As both the beauty and vitriol of words explode across social media, every industry should take stock about the language they use. And as the ultimate human business, healthcare must stop and listen to what we are saying to the people we care so much about.Words have an amazing power to both destroy and create. To inspire and to oppress. Today’s subtle cultural tremors can suddenly become earthquakes. Between the opposing poles of destruction and love lies a dangerous space where words may seep.

Alienation.

The verb alienate is defined as an action to cause someone to feel isolated or estranged.

Think about how alienation impacts your efforts to build trust in a brand–something no healthcare organization can live without.

Based on my 20 years as a professional communicator with five of those in health care, I can confidently say the words we choose sometimes alienates.

Healthcare has academia and bureaucracy in its DNA—a natural result of relying on science in a risk-averse industry always under the threat of litigation. Hospitals are big organizations grappling with the uncertainties of the human condition, something I saw firsthand in the military, too. So, we rely on acronyms and insider language to standardize the seemingly impossible to standardize as we attempt to function in the most stressful environs.

Our words serve us well inside of our world. But when they reveal themselves outside of our walls, they sometimes sabotage our efforts before we do the good that we yearn to do.

Words that seem benign can actually be deadly. Literally.

Seem far-fetched? Look at this way: when we advertise for a cancer screening and pack it with terminology that not only confuses our audience, it intimidates them…they don’t go to get screened. It’s that simple.

Think about your word choices beyond grammar and length as you build your creative executions. Some markets demand sophistication but in most, simple language will always win. Ask yourself if these are really the words people would use at a barbeque. Here are some common words and phrases that illustrate how people can feel alienated by them.

PATIENTS:

Patients wear paper gowns and have tubes coming out of them. While this word is sacred to us, it scares some people and sounds cold. Just call them people or families whenever you can. It’s that simple.

ACME NORTH EAST REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, A DIVISION OF HUGE HEALTHCARE INCORPORATED:

A fictional name but not a stretch for some in terms of length and coldness. You can’t change your name willy nilly but use common abbreviations or shorter versions, even say “we” after the first mention. You are writing to connect with real people, not to get A on a term paper.

OUR LINEAR ACCELERATOR HAS SUBMILLIMETER PRECISION WHICH CAN MAKE THE KESSEL RUN IN LESS THAN 12 PARSECS.

Nobody cares about the technobabble you are touting…except the person in the white lab coat who runs it. Often our attempts to impress only intimidate. People hear that kind of language and many think “Yeah, but you’re still shooting me with a radiation cannon, right?”

Lead with easily understandable benefits instead. “Our new technology is 95 percent more accurate and cuts your recovery time in half.”

“HEY! YOU CAN’T SAY CUTS!”

Nothing makes a boardroom sweat more than words like cut, kill, destroy, cure or heal. Even out of context. But we need to move past that if we truly want to connect with people in dynamic ways and not sound like our competitors. (Provided, of course, we aren’t making false promises or appear to be insensitive.) There are times when a brand might need to say “kill cancer” to get through. Usually the literal analysis starts with “But somebody might think that means…”.

Perception and context are always important, but don’t eliminate powerful language just because a single person MIGHT not understand. The most powerful communication campaigns in history would never have been born if the creative teams let this understandable yet dangerous fear control them.

OUR SURGICAL CHAIR, BOB SMITH, MD, DO, PHD, YMCA, HGTV WILL BE HAPPY TO MEET WITH YOU AND ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS.

Credentials have their place to establish expertise, but when out of place, it’s not only awkward…it’s snobby in the eyes of some. Use those letters sparingly.

PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN.

While most may finally know what this means, some still don’t, and it will always be language that is aloof to non-health care audiences. In the focus groups I have facilitated, I never heard a wife say, “I wish my husband would see his Primary Care Physician more regularly.” They say “Why won’t Bill go to the doctor?” Say doctor. Say family doctor. Or at least intermix common and formal terminology when you can, especially in longer forms like web copy. If it says Primary Care multiple times, it’s just plain weird.

DOGS HAVE OWNERS. CATS HAVE STAFF.

This sign hangs over my cat’s litter box. It’s a powerful reminder about control and the warped reality we sometimes have about it. If I “own” my cats, why am I scooping their litter box?

Words are the same way in health care.

We might be dishing the words out, but from the moment they leave our keyboards, we don’t own what they mean in people’s heads. Give the people you are trying reach the wheel when it comes to words…after all you’re both trying to get to the same place, which is better lives. There are enough huge roadblocks on the journey as is. Don’t let a little word stop you from getting there.

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