3 hospital marketing execs on which language to use, avoid using in campaigns

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Communication professionals understand the importance of using the right words — as well as the backlash or business loss that can ensue after using the wrong ones. Here, three hospital marketing executives share advice on what language to use and avoid in healthcare marketing campaigns.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for clarity and style.

Susan Milford, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communication at OSF HealthCare (Peoria, Ill.). We use person-centered language. People are much more than a disorder, disease or disability, so when writing or talking about them, we put people first. Using person-centered language shows that OSF respects the dignity, worth, unique qualities and strengths of every individual.

For example: Children with asthma may also have allergies — not asthmatic children. People with disabilities often need extra help — not disabled people. Dr. Doe specializes in treating people recovering after a stroke — not stroke patients.

Avoid the word "normal" when talking about people. Normal is a subjective phrase, and means something different to everyone. Watch for phrases that include "normal" and then “except,” “until” or “but,” such as a sentence like He might seem like a normal 35-year-old, except

Avoid the word “patient” when possible. We prefer the terms people/person, child/children. It's OK to use in quotes, when the audience is clinical or when otherwise unavoidable.

Brian Deffaa. Chief Marketing Officer at LifeBridge Health (Baltimore). It’s perhaps less about the words we use and more about the story and feeling we’re working to convey to the consumer — and the brand space we’re creating for LifeBridge Health. Consumers have more information available to them now than ever before, and most of the time, this is a good thing.   In the context of healthcare, our job is to provide them with both the real information they need to get them to where they need to go and leave them with a feeling of real warmth and humanity. We’re ruthless in working to achieve this in as few words as possible with a clean and focused visual aesthetic to make it easy on the consumer’s eye to comprehend without a lot of visual clutter. 

Once this frame is set, we look for language that is plain, approachable and focused on benefits. Healthcare has gotten a bad reputation (deservedly so) for being opaque and frightening to many; we work to make it approachable, encouraging engagement. We stay away from words that could be construed as "judgey" or attempt to frighten the consumer with what if scenarios. We opt instead to focus on scenarios that develop a "caring for you is caring for them" mindset focused again on future benefits of proactivity now.

Les Lifter, Chief Marketing Officer at Stanford Children’s Health (Menlo Park, Calif.). At Stanford Children’s Health, we look at consumer research to inform our messaging and language. Given the anxiety that parents were no doubt feeling during COVID, we conducted a quick survey to better understand the fears and concerns of parents. Rather than determine what words or terms turned parents off, we approached the survey from the standpoint of understanding what parents want to hear from us during this time.  

Stemming from the survey, we reinforced messages of accessibility to healthcare via virtual visits; safety protocols; importance of not delaying care and lastly, that Stanford Children’s Health was there for them.

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