8 Challenges for Healthcare Communicators—and Some Remedies

business people and doctora around a table, communicating

If the sole purpose of healthcare is to improve lives, perhaps it is ironic that there is often a human element missing in the way healthcare organizations communicate with patients and customers. But communicators like Edelman’s Susan Isenberg understand there is no one-size-fits-all answer to global communications, and they are working hard to humanize their outreach on social media and elsewhere.

As global chair of Edelman’s Health Sector, Isenberg leads the company’s global network of more than 600 health specialists. At the upcoming Healthcare Social Media Summit Oct. 23 in Baltimore, she is part of a session, “The State of Healthcare Communications,” in which she will discuss key issues facing the industry, offer insights into what Edelman is doing, and use data from the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer to help frame some of today’s challenges and approaches. In a recent Q&A, she provided this preview of the session:

PR News: What are the biggest healthcare communications challenges facing Fortune 500 pharmaceutical and healthcare-related companies?

Susan Isenberg: Addressing the cost of healthcare and ensuring the industry’s benefits to society are clearly articulated are two challenges that go hand-in-hand for healthcare communicators. In today’s increasingly scrutinized environment, we must be prepared to discuss both cost and value of drugs, or run the risk of other messages being drowned out. A compounding factor is that we are communicating in an increasingly polarized world, a key finding of the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. Illustrating this, healthcare saw significant swings in trust scores at the market level, including countries like the United States, Brazil, Colombia and Japan listing the sector as the least trusted of all included in the study.

Edelman has always said there is no “one size fits all” approach to global communications, and this year more than ever communicators need to be cognizant of and take into account local concerns and perceptions. But, there is ample room for healthcare companies to rebuild trust. For example, Edelman Trust confirms people want CEOs to speak out on issues beyond business—64% globally said CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it. Globally, 68% also agreed they would trust a pharmaceutical, drug or biotech company more if it also provided information, tools and support to help them manage their diseases.

PR News: Healthcare professionals have been applauded for their passion to care about people, yet they also have been cited for not communicating with patients well enough. Thoughts?

SI: Many healthcare professionals are strapped for time and may also have limited communication resources—so the challenge of ensuring that patients are fully comfortable with complicated medical information is understandable. Yet as the Edelman Trust Barometer shows a rise in trust in experts, healthcare practitioners (HCPs) are in an increasingly important and trusted position when it comes to sharing health information. Opportunities to communicate with patients also continue to evolve. For example, savvy HCPs are now using health tech for additional patient touch points outside of the exam room, like online scheduling and patient messaging apps.

In the meantime, as patients continue to seek information from multiple sources including their physicians, it is important that we as communicators use a variety of mediums to disseminate our healthcare messaging. Edelman’s Global Trust data shows that 64% of respondents believe content provided by health companies is credible, while only 53% trust health news reported by the media. This is a clear opportunity for health companies to leverage their own media channels and share their stories through interactive, creative content.

PR News: What is the effect of high tech on healthcare communications?

SI: Health tech is bringing some amazing advancements and efficiencies to healthcare, but along with it is a further-nuanced communications environment and more technical language to navigate. That said, Edelman Trust found people generally feel positive about the value of health tech, with agreement that health tech will lead to better patient outcomes and empower medical professionals with valuable information as the top Trust survey options selected globally. The challenge to communicators is to explain advancements provided by health tech in a way that the benefits are clearly understood.

PR News: As patients have more online access to information than ever before, how does that alter communications expectations?

SI: Patients are increasingly self-educating and self-advocating. They are now looking to healthcare companies to sell more than just a product, so communicators must show how the industry is building and creating solutions that are beyond the pill.

Despite the sole focus of healthcare being to improve lives, there is often a human element missing from communications. We might help address this by, for example, humanizing what happens in the laboratory by showcasing the real scientists behind a breakthrough, or creating a campaign where patients are heard and can contribute rather than just feeling they are simply the target of promotions for a new drug.

PR News: How have regulatory changes impacted healthcare communications?

SI: Edelman always advocates for transparency for our clients in their engagement offline and online, and new healthcare regulations, along with the GDPR, have made this mandatory. For example, spokespersons must disclose that they are being paid, a condition that applies to both social media and traditional media campaigns. HIPAA violations can now extend to social media usage. With that said, FDA has issued record-low numbers of warning letters in recent years – an indication that most health marketers have figured out how to effectively navigate disease and treatment-related communications across digital channels.

PR News: How do you choose the most effective social media platforms for patient communications?

SI: This really depends on the target audience of the campaign and the goal of engagement. For example, Twitter and Reddit are great for fostering real-time dialogue, like an “ask me anything” with a healthcare professional. Instagram is the place for stories that are highly visual, but is more limited on sharing resources like fact sheets and tool kits. Facebook is the place to build community, whether that’s for a disease state or brand (although there is certainly room for branded communications to branch out further). Ultimately, engagement within social media has to deliver against measurable reputational and business objectives, regardless of the specific channel or content format.

PR News: How important is it to tailor different messages for different audiences in different social platforms?

 SI: This is essential—audiences will not connect with messages they don’t see as authentic and relevant. Even worse, the viral nature of social media may make backlash more prominent than the original message. Social media is an important communications tool to meet people where they are at, but like any successful communications campaign, messages must be designed with a clear target audience in mind. Now keep in mind, social media platforms are paid media platforms, so not only do we need to effectively tailor the content and messaging, but we must pair that with a promotional targeting plan that delivers the content to the most relevant and receptive audiences who are ready to act.

PR News: How do you measure the effect of your social media communications efforts?

SI: Social for social’s sake is no longer sufficient grounds for engagement. The resource requirements in both people hours and paid media means that our social activities have to ladder up to real business goals. In some instances, we work directly with platforms such as Facebook to conduct measurement of audiences who have been exposed to our content and interactions, or we conduct our own surveys across social and owned digital properties. Ultimately, calls-to-action such as email opt-ins, usage of physician locators, or click-to-call are the true business-connected metrics that matter most.

Jim Alkon is a contributing writer for PR News and is currently Editorial Director of BookTrib.com, a website where readers discover emerging authors.