How can healthcare copywriting help us make the right choices?

by Sophie Cole

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You’d think getting people to do things that benefit their health would be a walk in the park, right? Surely, the idealistic healthcare copywriting company, or marketer, mumbles to themselves, it’s a no-brainer to do the stuff that’s going to keep us healthy, and keep doing it over and over until we die at a ripe old age? The problem is, we don’t always want what’s good for us.

Wilful disobedience

So why aren’t we a nation of kale-munching gym-buffs? Princeton University discovered that, for many of us, our ‘emotional’ brain (which feeds us feel-good chemical dopamine) drives us to look for instant gratification, beating out the ‘logical’ brain, which knows kebabs and tequila aren’t good for us.

A lot of the time, we’re also a bit selfish and stubborn. It’s hard to resist a dopamine high, so we bury our heads in the sand. Usually, it takes a health scare close to home to shock us out of our vices, despite scientific evidence showing that they’re bad for us. A study found that as much as 80% of the population suffers from optimism bias, a term coined by neuroscientist Tali Sharot. We recognise that serious things like car crashes, cancer and freak accidents occur, but believe they won’t happen to us directly. It’s a protective mechanism that keeps our brains motivated and happy but leads people to take risks they rationally shouldn’t.

A (troubling) tale as old as time

Getting the public to take healthcare risks seriously has always been a challenge with healthcare copywriting. Worrying conditions that affect us gradually, like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, can be slowed, halted or even reverse with gentle lifestyle shifts. But what about when the risk to our health is so immediate and so great, it requires us all to completely alter our everyday lives? That requires a different strategy altogether.

How the world is responding

The task of the world’s public health bodies following COVID-19 has been nothing short of colossal. Asking billions of citizens to completely change their lives sounds close to impossible. And the reality of communicating with frightened and distrustful nations has been even harder than it seems.  Even after the WHO (World Health Organisation) classified COVID-19 (Coronavirus) as a pandemic, some countries’ response still lacked urgency and gravitas. We’ve already given our take on the language of leadership during this crisis, but the way healthcare bodies are communicating has come under just as much scrutiny. Three clear healthcare copywriting approaches have been deployed in this ‘war of words’: concise slogans, emotional appeals and fact-based evidence.

Short, sharp and not very sweet

Governments of democratic nations, like our own, have suddenly needed an unprecedented level of control over their citizens’ lives. Our leaders have had to choose their words carefully, to encourage compliance without causing mass meltdowns and hysteria (like the international toilet roll debacle).

The UK’s government has favoured short slogans, like election campaign lines or wartime mantras. “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” It’s a simple directive with a strong emotional core. Even if everything else slips past you, the idea that if you stay home, fewer people will die a nasty death, has probably stuck. Rates of compliance appear to be high, as car journeys have dropped by over 60% and usually packed city centres have turned into ghost towns.

Emotional triggers

Emotion-led news pieces, like images of health workers with bruised faces from tight PPE, and nurses crying because panic-buying has left them without groceries, have also made us sit up and take notice. They’ve trigged those who were perhaps more concerned about boredom and disrupted plans, to begin with, to think carefully about their actions.
Sometimes emotions have been brought into the conversation unnecessarily, like when Boris Johnson clumsily stated: “It is going to spread further and I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” His comments felt insensitive amid widespread worry about a lack of government action, at a time when ‘herd immunity’ seemed to be our main weapon against Coronavirus.

Other times, like his March 23rd speech outlining lockdown measures, Johnson used emotion more effectively. Statements that felt as though they were coming at a time of war, including “with the time you buy by simply staying at home … [we can] turn the tide on this invisible killer” and “in this fight, every one of us is directly enlisted”, put the onus on every member of the public to comply. It also showed them their role had the same importance as the heroes in the NHS, prompting a sense of duty that has (so far) achieved widespread compliance.

Expert guidance

On the whole, the public has responded far better to statistical reassurance that we’re not going to starve or run out of loo-roll at the daily press briefings. Putting the experts front and centre has felt reassuring to lots of people. While President Trump’s speeches have been widely criticised for being confusing, needlessly confrontational, and often untruthful, Dr Anthony Fauci has been lauded for his science-led approach, informed by more than three decades fighting diseases like Ebola, HIV/AIDS and Swine Flu.

And here in the UK, health secretary Matt Hancock and home secretary Priti Patel have come under fire for a lack of ownership in their responses (a crisis comms no-no regardless of the situation). Meanwhile, the presence of Sir Patrick Vallance, Professor Chris Witty and Dr Jenny Harries at the daily briefings, who have close to a century of experience in the world of healthcare between them, have felt more reassuring.

Clear graphs showing that our lockdown efforts are working has also encouraged us that the disruption hasn’t been for nothing. As a result, YouGov and Imperial College London’s surveying tool shows that more than 80% of people say that they’re avoiding leaving the house at the moment, as much as possible.

What can healthcare learn about this language?

It’s too early to evaluate what public health bodies across the world have got right and wrong about the COVID-19 crisis. However, the events of 2020 will change healthcare copywriting in the future. The most effective strategy by far has been a clear, fact-based approach, highlighting the research, statistics and numbers so people have something tangible to grasp onto. And it seems, in the wider healthcare world, people want proof over-promising claims. The Brands in Motion 2018 global study found that so called ‘rational drivers’ of brand engagement had increased by 16%, while ‘emotional drivers’ grew by just 14%, showing there’s a widespread thirst for evidence of effectiveness beyond times of public health crises.

COVID-19 has also shown that emotion has its place in healthcare copywriting too. By encouraging and appealing to our moral compasses, many governments including our own have ‘locked down’ millions of people to reduce deaths, and given them hope to carry on with real evidence of the strategy’s effectiveness

A winning strategy

Other healthcare organisations have done this well in the past. Storytelling is one of the most effective tools in any marketer’s arsenal, and New York Presbyterian Hospital published a series of patient stories to highlight its services in the words of those who have been saved by them. And in the same vein as Boris Johnson’s “directly enlisted” comments, UnitedHealthcare’s “We Dare You” campaign sparked our dislike of being underestimated and challenged people to change one thing about their health. As a result, it built a strong online community that was working to improve their wellbeing and won several awards.

When it comes to health, emotions are intrinsically linked. But using them to manipulate, guilt trip or use false hope to make the public do something doesn’t work. Our own health anxieties can make us selfishly impenetrable, so it’s clear that if we want people to do something, they need to understand what’s in it for them and see clear evidence that it’s an effort worth making.

A life or death choice

Healthcare comms won’t always need to be as serious as they are right now. But it’s vitally important to say things right, first time when your words are the difference between a life saved and a life lost. If you’re struggling to say exactly what you mean, check out our blog posts and LinkedIn for more tips, or get in touch to see how our experienced copywriters and content strategists can help.

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