Best practices when writing about healthcare

For the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of writing almost exclusively about healthcare, my favorite industry. According to the World Health Organization, in 2018, global healthcare was an $8.3 trillion market, accounting for 10 percent of global GDP. Meanwhile, according to US national health expenditure data, US healthcare spending reached $4.1 trillion in 2020—a whopping 19.7 percent of GDP.

The sheer size of the US healthcare market explains, at least in part, the volume of media and content marketing coverage it receives. But along with its colossal size, the healthcare industry checks a lot of boxes for interesting content, including universal relevance (no one is unaffected), high stakes (the highest stakes?), a mix of public and private (from Medicare & Medicaid to retail mini-clinics), and massive disruption taking place across the entire ecosystem. Healthcare also lends itself to high-volume surveys—of physicians, nurses, patients, insurance subscribers, and others. Substantiating insights with survey data can draw readers in and boost the credibility of an article or report.

Having immersed myself in US healthcare topics of late, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of some storytelling tenets that apply broadly but have taken on particular importance for me now as I write about healthcare.

Clarify the scope up front

Because healthcare is such a massive industry comprising diverse segments including payers, health systems, clinicians, patients, suppliers, benefits administrators, and pharmacies, among others, authors should be clear up front about which part of the industry they are addressing. Referencing “the healthcare industry” in a title, lead sentence, and introduction without further clarification leaves readers wondering about the scope of the article and the intended audience, and could prompt a busy reader to abandon the page.

Design surveys carefully

If one survey objective is to compare the views of different respondents on a given topic, then ask them the same questions rather than different questions that are narrowly customized to their respective roles. It’s tough to glean insights about what, say, the chief financial officer (CFO) thinks compared to the chief marketing officer (CMO)—or about physicians’ challenges compared with nurses’—if they were asked a different set of questions. A common core of questions can then be followed up with drill-down questions specific to each role to capture a different set of insights.

Be consistent and specific in language

A health system and an integrated delivery network (IDN) are synonyms; both refer to an organization that delivers patient care within a community or region through a variety of healthcare facilities such as hospitals and ambulatory care settings. Use one term and stick with it throughout the article. Among other nuances to keep in mind, physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals are clinicians; not all clinicians are doctors. If you’re writing about telehealth, don’t feel compelled to also refer to it as digital health or virtual health to avoid repetition; there’s virtue in simplicity and clarity. But be sure to define it because telehealth, like many other terms, has no universally understood meaning.

Consider the reader’s perspective

In cases where more than one term could be used, consider your target audience. For example, those who purchase private health insurance may consider themselves to be subscribers. Meanwhile, the health insurance companies (also called payers or even payors) are more likely to refer to their customers as beneficiaries. The term “members” would be relatable to both. Also, healthcare generates a tremendous amount of wonky public-policy analysis, in-depth medical research, and other material that’s of interest and accessible to a fairly narrow audience. When writing on these topics, consider also distilling the insights into a shorter, high-level piece for the benefit of executives and other key decision-makers who need to understand the gist but not the guts of the topic.

Ultimately, all these tips come down to two things that define good content regardless of industry or function: respecting your readers and removing obstacles that stand in the way of delivering your messages to them.

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