Lessons from a Health Care Journey

My brother entered hospice today. This isn’t about the measure of a life. It isn’t even about the treatment he received in the last five weeks of that life. This is from the perspective of those who cared deeply for him through the decades. There were small acts of kindness that made a difference. Then there’s the rest.

For those of us working in health care, there are lessons to be learned.


Lesson #1: Every Moment Counts

My brother spent the last month 950-bed monolith, a Magnet-certified, flagship hospital in the Midwest. The moments families and friends get to spend with those in a health crisis is a scarce resource. Minutes separated from loved one matter. Remember that when you wheel a patient to Radiology and you know that there’s a 45-minute wait. Don’t make all that talk about putting patients first be just talk.


Lesson #2: First Impressions Matter

Like many urban facilities, this one had more than it shares of issues. Top of the list was parking, Depending on where you could find space, street lots were either a pilgrimage or an endurance test. Without much rhyme or reason, lots were assigned to employees, physicians, and the general public. When all you want to do is see a loved one, nothing is worse than finding a half-empty lot with badge-only access.

Parking garages were even worse. They were designed for when cars, like waistlines, were smaller.  Eight and nine-story edifices held the promise of an elevator that had seen better days. Poor signage made it all the more likely that you’d never remember where you parked. Then, of course, there were the signs that said if anything was visible in the car it wouldn’t be there when you returned.

There’s a simple rule: Impressions start long before customers enter the door. With simple rules, comes equally simple answers: valet parking. If there is a fee, include language like, “a portion of today’s fee goes to ______.”


Lesson #3: Second Impressions Matter, too

Make eye contact. Smile. Offer to help. Odds are, they won’t take you up on the offer. What they will remember is that employees made an effort. Whether you're leading a department or a division, this one doesn’t cost you a dime.


Lesson #4: Watch the Clock

When someone you care about is in pain, a minute feels like 10. Never say I’ll be there soon or your medications will be available in a few moments. Your definition of soon and a few is never going to match that of a family member.

Instead, tell them what you will do. “I’ll contact a physician right away to see how we can safely manage his pain” is an extraordinary response. It states an action, uses “we” to show whose side you are on, and tops that with a statement that shows you hear the concern.


Lesson #5: Use Teach-Backs Strategically

If you can’t tell it in their eyes, their body language will give it away. It's obvious when someone is hearing but not understanding. Let the moment pass and you’ve set the stage for an expectation that won’t be met. You need to be willing to say, “I want to make sure you understand. Can you repeat it back to me in your own words?”


Lesson #6: Be as Open as HIPAA Allows

Invite spouses or those with approved to make medical decisions for the patient to listen in on rounds. What’s told to an intern can be told to a wife or husband.


The Take-Away

The actions you take, whether big or small, are the seeds of tomorrow's stories. Members of faith communities will be familiar with verses that reinforce the concept that you will reap what you sow.

What seeds will you and your team plant today?

Trust vs. Ease of Use in Health-Related Content

How much does your organization spend annually when it comes to building trust in your brand?

Your hard effort in creating an authoritative destination on the web may have been misplaced.

Results from the 6th annual Makovsky/Kelton “Pulse of Online Search” Survey suggests ease of use triumphs over trust when it comes to how online consumers use health-related information.
This has major implications when it comes to health care communications.

The takeaway: when information isn’t easily accessible, consumers look elsewhere.

Five Ways to Improve Ease of Use

How can you improve accessibility? Start with these five. 

  • STAY IN FOCUS (GROUPS). When was the last time you brought in a couple dozen members of your target audience and watch them interact with your website? For a small mountain of boxed lunches you can gain amazing insights into what works and what needs a rethink. 
  • PRETEND YOU ARE RAND McNALLY. Websites, like waistlines, tend to expand over time. Create a map and ask yourself, "Does the website's organizational structure make sense?" and "Does it really need this many clicks to get to the information?"
  • WALK IN THEIR SHOES. All too often, content is crafted around the organization's message rather than consumer needs. When someone is searching for answers, odds are it is not how to conveniently pay their bill or news of groundbreaking for a new addition. 
  • DON'T LEAVE THEM STRANDED. Particularly when it comes to content about health conditions, include calls to action. Give them instructions/options. It can be something as simple as, "Schedule your mammogram today. Call us at 555-24-HEALTH."
  • WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE. Most of your consumers did not go to Medical or Nursing School. While they may watch Grey's Anatomy, they still do not know the jargon. Write content as if you are trying to explain it to your grandparents. 

This infographic from Makovsky highlights how ease of use triumphs over trust.

 [H/T makovsky.com]

[H/T makovsky.com]

Messaging to Cost-Conscious Consumers

Health care messaging is challenging even in the best of times. Reaching out to the cost-conscious consumer isn't made easier with talk of rising health care costs and the reform of the Affordable Care Act filling the airways. Your messaging to this audience has to be crystal clear. Target your copy to focus on the three themes that start with the letter E:

  • EMPOWERMENT. Remind readers that they control their health care decisions and that preventative medicine is the most effective way to control costs.
  • EXPERIENCE. People make decisions with their heart, then their head. Use stories to make emotional connections and drive your value and quality message.
  • EMPATHY. Admit that times can be tough. Recognize the cost burden and explain that you have tools to estimate costs and dedicated staff to help find solutions. 

Want to learn more? The team at Amino had Ipso poll 1,006 adults on how Americans cope with rising health care costs. Click the infographic to read the full article. 

 H/T Amino

H/T Amino

4 Words Hurting Your Copy

Words can heal. They can hurt. They can also cost you money.

In Business to Consumer (B2C) writing, the phrase “state-of-the-art” appears fairly often. Grab a copy of a Sunday paper or a magazine like, The New Yorker. Cars will be breathlessly proclaimed to have state-of-the-art suspension. The latest architectural marvel will be said to have magnificent views made possible by state-of-the-art design. Hotels will promote their state-of-the-art service. Look around, and you’ll even see those four single-syllable words cropping up in health care copy.

The problem is, it feels like marketing-speak.  What exactly does it mean?

The Standard Preamble

Before digging in, let’s state the obvious. I’m not a lawyer. I do not play one on TV. I wasn’t even one in a high school play. This isn’t intended as legal advice. It is, however, intended to make you pause before you use the phrase again.

I’m a health care writer and words matter to me. With that on the table, let’s dig in.

An Example

Nevada-based MountainView Hospital is a 340-bed trauma center, serving its community since 1996. Here’s how they describe themselves:

MountainView Hospital is a state-of-the-art, full-service medical facility located in the heart of Northwest Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing areas in the valley.

I’ve never stepped foot in the place, but from the website, it looks like a fine facility. It is part of HCA, rolling up to their Far West Division, which has oversight for facilities in California and Nevada. As reported on MountainView Hospital's website, they have a record of quality to be proud of. They’re not the only health care provider to use the phrase (see here, here, and here). They are, however, the first one that my search engine reported who used the phrase in the last month.

What’s bugging me about MountainView Hospital's description is that phrase state-of-the-art. What exactly are they trying to say?

State-of-the-Art by the Book

There’s a slight — but important —  disagreement when it comes to defining state-of-the-art.  As shown below, the Oxford Dictionary team emphasize recency:

(T)he most recent stage in the development of a product, incorporating the newest ideas and the most up-to-date features.

When it comes usage, the folks at Grammerist have a different take, one that targets rankings:

The advertising buzz phrase state of the art began as a noun phrase referring to the current highest level of development in a field, but today it’s also often used as a phrasal adjective meaning at the highest level of development. In the latter use, state of the art is usually hyphenated.

There’s a world of difference between the two. Recency simply means new. There is no attempt to qualify whether whatever is state-of-the-art is an improvement over its predecessor. Grammerist, in using the phrase “highest level of development,” implies some sort of classification. They are arguing that in modern usage, the phrase suggests that like items are compared, using an unknown scale.

When it comes to MountainView Hospital, do you think they were implying recency or rankings? Perhaps more relevant, what do you think their customer base internalized when they read the description?

Defining State-of-the-Art for the Rest of Us

The real test is how your community defines the term. All of us have an annoying habit of making leaps of logic (or at least small jumps). We’re more prone to this effect in moments of stress or when we are looking for a response that will support our desired outcome.

We Hear what We Want to Hear

It's a safe bet that either you have been or know someone who has been impacted by cancer. A Stage IV NSCLC (Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer) patient may be placed on chemo plus a targeted drug like ramucirumab (Cyramza). In discussing treatment, the oncologist will describe life expectancy within a range. Odds are, the patient (and loved ones in the room) will only remember the far end of the range.

We hear what we want to hear. The same goes for what we remember.

It is All a Matter of Interpretation

So, when it comes to customers, let’s look at some possible ways the phrase state-of-the-art can be interpreted.

  • THEY’RE THE BEST. PERIOD. Nobody else can measure up.
  • IT’S AN INDICATOR OF QUALITY OUTCOMES. My care here will be better than anywhere else.
  • THEY’RE THE CUTTING EDGE. They have technology that nobody else has.
  • THEY WILL BE ABLE TO HEAL ME. They have the tools and resources to make me as good as new.

While any of these could potentially be true, it is probably not what's intended when by the phrase state-of-the-art. From a legal perspective, implying a performance guarantee or outcome can be dangerous to a provider’s financial health.

State-of-the-art is like adding rice or breadcrumbs to meatloaf. It’s filler. Unless explicitly spelled out in later text, it has no clear meaning.

What You Need to Do

Here are four steps to take today:


Every organization needs a style guide for their brand. If your style guide consists of Post-it Notes and random pages in a folder serving as a swipe file, it's time to create the real thing.  A style guide sets the standards for text (style and organization-specific text conventions), visual design ("look and feel"), and voice (ethics, viewpoint). Documenting everything from logo usage to word choice, style guides promote consistency while helping you avoid legal quagmires.

If you have a style guide in place, it is time to add state-of-the-art to the list of phrases to retire. By the way, whenever you edit lists of preferred word choices or boilerplate text, it's best practice to have it reviewed by your legal team.


It's time to audit your website and print materials. With your style guide in hand, search for instances where words to avoid appear "out in the wild." Every organization has its own list. On top of that, here are four additional descriptors you should take a second look at before using:

  • QUALIFIED. Would you ever hire someone who is unqualified?
  • BEST IN CLASS. You better be prepared to prove it.
  • WORLD CLASS. Like state-of-the-art, what does it mean?
  • CUTTING EDGE. Be careful when it comes to words that can be a double entendre.


If you know the answer to these two magic questions, you know what to write.

QUESTION 1: Who is My Audience?

Before putting pen to paper, know who you are trying to influence. Just like playing darts, it’s easier when you can see the target.

QUESTION 2: What do I Want them to Walk Away with?

That’s a different question from, “Why am I writing this?” This is about how your reader’s world view and the behaviors you are trying to change.

Pro Tip: Keep your answers to both questions within view as you write. It’s your compass to ensure you stay on the right path.


State-of-the-art is shorthand for what you are really trying to say. Over the course of a couple of drafts, your voice will be clear. For example:

THE FIRST DRAFT: Jepson Valley Hospital features state-of-the-art technology to determine if you have an artery blockage.

GETTING BETTER: Jepson Valley Hospital’s CT scanning technology provides accurate evaluation of heart and whether it has an artery blockage.

THIS IS THE ONE: Jepson Valley Hospital uses the newest Computer Tomography (CT) technology to diagnose your condition in just 15-20 minutes. It's safer, faster, cheaper, and just as accurate as invasive procedures like catheter angiography.

When it comes to updating content, don't go it alone. Steve can help when you need targeted, consumer-friendly copy that drives a response. Click Contact to start the conversation.

2017 Internal Communication Trends

A couple weeks back, Sarah Perry wrote about emerging trends in internal communications on ragan.com.

Here is what she found:

Companies are encouraging employee-fronted content. Whether it is videos or screen savers, there’s more credibility when it is coming from a peer.

Although you may wish otherwise, email isn’t disappearing. It will remain the standard for business communication. The challenge remains how to ensure that everyone reads their email.

Yammer, Slack and other enterprise social networks are finding their way into more organizations.

Every year, people write about information overload. To combat it, there’s an increase in top-down, push messaging tools.

Internal Communications teams are increasingly being asked to provide data showing how they are making a difference.

What are the trends at your workplace?

[h/t Regan Communications, Inc.]

5 Steps Before Creating Content

A post at Digitant Consulting opened with:

Recent research shows that when they need information related to health care, over 90% of people go to online sources.

You know that building a strong online presence is one of the most cost-effective strategies to grow your business. It is, however, easier said than done. When prospects come to your website, what actions are you taking to make your story resonate?

Here are five steps to take before creating content.

Know Your Target

Who, exactly, are you writing to? Is it a home-bound senior who reads Prevention and never misses an episode of Dr. Oz or is it a single parent with kids in daycare?  This is more than just creating an avatar or picture in your mind.

Two Strategies

Talk. Then Really Listen.

Strike up a conversation when you’re in line for the mocha whatever at Starbucks. The same for when you and a small mob of other parents are at their kid’s soccer practice. You will be surprised what you can learn.

Do a Bit of Research

Spend time with those who are on the front lines. The team in the Call Center or at Registration interact daily with the people you are trying to reach.

Set the Perspective

Before you select New Document in Word, ask, “Why should people care about this story?” Answer that question and you’ve taken the first step in writing from the customer’s perspective.

Be Conversational

Write more like you talk. With the rise of “fake news,” people are naturally wary. To build trust, write with the same voice you would use if you were having lunch in a crowded diner. Save the academic writing style for your Ph.D. In short, be excited rather than exuberant.

Tell a Story

Build in a story and, when you can, tell it in the first person. It draws you in and is far more memorable.

Not so hot: "Jeff has always struggled with his weight.”

Better: “My weight has been an issue since the third grade.”

Know the Call to Action

The late Dr. Steven Covey used to always say, “Begin with the end in mind.” It’s still sage advice. You need to know exactly what you want the reader to do when they finish the post. Every paragraph has to guide the reader towards that action.

In that same light, don’t be shy when it comes to the ask. There’s a reason why teenagers won’t stop using the coffee table as a footstool until you tell them. Your target audience has fewer mind readers than you might think. If you want the reader to call, ask them.

The Challenge

Look back at your last three pieces of web content. How do they measure up?

If you’re looking for help in creating content that resonates, let’s start a conversation.

"5 Steps Before Creating Content" is the first in an occasional series on improving your copywriting skills.

A Simple Way to Improve Your Brand

If you do not know about Siegel+Gale, you should. They are a consulting firm that believes in a simple premise: simple is better. For the better part of the last decade, Siegel+Gale has offered their Global Brand Simplicity Index. It’s findings are both provocative and thought provoking.

This year’s findings, derived from responses of 14,000 participants, ranked 857 brands. Three of their conclusions jump out:

  • Consumers value simplicity. Almost two-thirds of consumers are willing to pay more for simpler experiences.
  • Simplicity drives loyalty. More than 6 in 10 consumers are more likely to recommend a brand because it is simple.
  • Employees believe in simplicity. Percentage-wise, more than three times as many employees are brand champions at organizations viewed as embracing simplicity.

Given the data, the big question is, "What have you done in the last 30 days to simplify the experience for patients, their families, and your employees?"

Odds are, if you are honest, the answer starts and ends with two simple words:  not enough.

How you communicate with the community around you isn't a bad space to start. Grab pen and paper are read the following paragraph from a recent press release by CHRISTUS Trinity Mother Frances Health System.  The good people of CHRISTUS Trinity Mother Frances Health System do amazing work. In the light of the power of simplicity, this isn't their finest moment.

CHRISTUS Mother Frances Hospital - South Tyler employs an evidence-based procedure designed to deliver cost-effective care through operational alignment with national best-practice models and an evidence-based approach that streamlines emergency department efforts and prioritizes, in an intimate setting, at a convenient campus, closer to home.

It's time for a rewrite. Slice the health care jargon and corporate-speak. What are they really trying to say?

When you're done, apply that same critical eye to your organization's press releases.