Every provider claims to offer patient-centered care—but without health literacy, it's just a buzzword. The hallmark of patient-centered care is informed decision-making and positive outcomes. And these are realized only through true engagement, something to strive for in every communication medium.
Writing effectively about medicine, however, poses a huge challenge. Health literacy advocates, including Model Content, make much of “plain language.” But truly engaging content does more than filter out the jargon. Here are four tips for driving healthy action by engaging your readers.
Part 1: Motivate Your Reader
Motivational interviewing—does that sound too mushy to work in real life? It’s actually a widely adopted, evidence-based approach for interacting with clients. Oh, and it works for truckers. It can work for writers, too.
A study in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health evaluated an intervention in which motivational interviewers coached commercial truck drivers throughout a weight-loss competition. The coaches provided personalized options for behavioral change.
The subjects were chosen for good reason. Obesity is twice as high among American truck drivers (69%) than the general population (31%). Since certain chronic conditions tied to obesity can render drivers ineligible for the job, weight is a major quality-of-life problem.
“In addition to creating stressful precarious employment, obesity and associated sleep disorders place drivers at personally imperceptible—yet very real—increased risk of crash involvement,” according to the study. Health interventions with truck drivers are rarely successful, which makes it even cooler that this one resulted in statistically significant weight loss.
Since motivational interviewing is a comprehensive strategy of being with a client, it can provide valuable insight into writers’ relationship with their readers:
Part 2: Make Content Actionable
Medical brochures, phone scripts and health sites can feel like a wagging finger. They leave patients with the knowledge that they’re not doing things right, but no idea about how to turn things around. Want people to take action? Give them an action to take.
Consider the following examples: "Don’t eat more than 60g of carbohydrates at each meal" versus "Cook healthy food with delicious recipes like this one."
Merck does this on a regular basis, demonstrating their understanding that a person with diabetes is more than just their insulin shots, offering to be a partner. And it works. With over 40,000 Facebook likes, Merck is one of the most engaged pharmaceutical companies in the social media space.
Part 3: Strike the Right Tone
Many medical writers assess the readability levels of their pieces, but less commonly assess their tone.
Partly this is because readability can be quickly scored with one of several tools, easily accessible online or embedded in your text editor. Tone is more unique to your brand, and slightly more complicated to parse.
The Nielsen Norman Group designed a tool to help content strategists create simple tone profiles, specifically for a company’s online presence. They settled on 4 primary tone-of-voice dimensions to describe any website:
The best way to determine where your existing web copy falls on these dimensions is to test your readership directly, which is what NN/g did. Notice that none of the four dimensions listed above are inherently positive or negative. What’s “positive” for you is highly unique.
“When you’re defining your tone for a whole site or a specific piece of content, start with these four high-level dimensions first,” says NN/g. Only then should you “refine your tone strategy by choosing more specific tone target words like ‘playful,’ ‘quirky,’ or ‘sarcastic.’”
When urging readers to do something that’s difficult or unfamiliar, CMS recommends being friendly, positive, supportive, polite, invitational and nonjudgmental. But the precise tonal qualities you aim for will vary depending on whether you’re an HMO or a fitness center, whether you’re writing an online enrollment form or a blog post, and who comprises your target audience.
Part 4: Be the Change You Want to See
Regardless of whether Gandhi actually said these words, it's good advice. If you’re trying to effect change in your health plan members, patients or nonprofit constituents, you have to be willing to change yourself. Regularly evaluate your success, and change your content strategy accordingly. If you can't follow in NN/g's footsteps with direct audience testing, you have other options.
Positive Health Outcomes
If you work for a hospital, health insurance company or other institution with access to client data, take advantage of trends in endpoints such as emergency room visits, BMI fluctuations, and fulfillment of preventive care recommendations.
If your organization or client takes a multipronged approach (and it should), it may be difficult to tell what role written content plays in these overall trends. Staggering the timing of various campaigns—written, phone-based and otherwise—may provide clues.
In the end, however, all departments should be working together to achieve overall goals. Your strategies should complement one another. Writers in particular should reinforce the messaging that doctors, nurses, social workers and customer service representatives are delivering verbally (and vice versa).
If your content is online, you should see your success or failure in your analytics. If you’re creating more engaging content, your average time on site will increase while your bounce rate falls. Whatever your metrics, set a frequency (quarterly to yearly) to evaluate the numbers, look at the evidence for content’s role, and craft a strategy to improve.
While Google Analytics only provides metrics on general audiences—such as visitors in certain cities or using certain devices—patient portals can provide information on specific users. Companies and nonprofits with a patient portal should take full advantage of their technology to determine engagement on written materials.
For old-fashioned media, such as print newsletters, track success with calls to action by using vanity urls and phone numbers. While the link redirects to your usual preventive care services page or the phone number ends up at your usual social worker hotline, you’ll know that the reader took action because only that specific piece of content or platform used that unique url or phone number.
And because you tracked it, you rock star.
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