Patients routinely go to the Internet to look for advice, comfort, information, and solutions. This isn't the best way to address medical problems; even patients will agree it's reckless to bypass a living, breathing doctor to seek advice from untrained strangers on the Internet.
This may, in fact, be one of the reasons why your medical practice is starting a blog. If patients are checking the Web first for advice, they will encounter all sorts of advice, much of it wrong or even dangerous.
Your presence on the web, delivering factual content with authority is one way to help them. But you can take it a step further.
Blog posts written for healthcare readers should strive to keep in mind three key qualities that can positively influence content. Introducing the Three Ts: trust, tone, and tact.
Why do you think patients take their healthcare questions online in the first place? Aside from convenience, it may be because they have lost faith in the medical profession.
Dr. Linda Girgis MD wrote in detail about this subject in Physician's Weekly in 2015. She theorizes that patients are losing faith in the medical field because they:
perceive doctors as being profit driven
do not feel listened to
encounter frustration when third parties make medical decisions
have experienced doctors who did put profits before patient care
do not see the workflow and bureaucracy inherent in 21st century medicine
are unaware of continuous cuts to reimbursements and higher patient volumes
Believe the media and its inflammatory biases against the healthcare system
do not recognize how the demands of medical disease change with the population
In 2014, medical blogger and emergency physician Myles Riner MD (The Fickle Finger) posed a related question in a post at KevinMD:
"Did physicians in this country merit this transition in cultural perception from caring to untrustworthy (or at least indifferent) over 40 years, or were we the victims of cultural ambush?"
Riner made a playful comparison between two popular television medical dramas (Marcus Welby, MD and House) in order to explore potential answers to a very serious question.
Ultimately, he concludes (fairly) that there's still a lot of work to do. This, even after calling out an interesting contradiction from a 2011 Gallup poll: it showed that 70 percent of Americans polled said they trusted their doctors, evidence of a continuous rise in honesty and ethical ratings when compared to what was once considered a "high" rating (56 percent) back in 1976.
Meanwhile, also in 2014, bioethicist Peter Ubel asked "Why don't Americans trust doctors?" in a Forbes editorial that revealed an interesting dichotomy:
"Americans love their doctors, but aren’t so fond of the medical profession as a whole."
His inquiry was inspired by a New England Journal of Medicine report that pointed fingers at media bias and politics for leveling systemic damage to public perceptions of the field of medicine.
Can your blog fix these trust issues?
Your blog can't fix Big Picture problems like these... but it can be a great tool for inspiring patients to return to the fold of quality patient care and patient-doctor relationship when they realize they need it.
Through your content, you can convey multiple reasons for them to trust in your services, your staff, your skills, and, most importantly, your intentions.
Blogging can easily portray your areas of expertise, express your personal commitment to quality healthcare and technologies, and illustrate on multiple levels your desire to be a reliable asset in the community.
Your medical blog exists, after all, to position your practice as the go-to resource that patients can trust to deliver on these important qualities.
How your blog conveys the "personality" or "voice" of your medical practice is critical to your reputation. The specific nature of your medical practice should define the emotional tone of your blog. For instance:
- If you are an oncologist, you may wish to convey assertive, proactive, teamwork-driven approaches to treatment.
- If you are a pediatric dentist, your tone will probably be softer, more friendly, and designed to be educational.
- If you are a physical therapist with brand-new technology to offer, you may wish to tailor your tone to characterize the advanced nature of your skills and services.
How can a blog convey tone?
Employing multiple blog elements in thoughtful and consistent ways can fine tune the tone of your blog.
Choose headlines, keywords, and phrases that show you are compassionate, hard working, approachable, open minded, and highly skilled. This will win over readers.
However, if you use language that seems only to point to the selling of your services, or is overly complicated or vague, prospective patients may become less interested.
Sometimes, these conflicts in tone can become downright confusing, even disastrous. If you choose light-hearted anecdotes or humor to reach out to your patients, be warned: you may unwittingly offend them!
Knowing who your audience is makes all the difference. Humor in a blog post that offers wellness services for babies can work, but if yours is a hospice service providing round-the-clock compassionate care, you may wish to use more gentle, sympathetic language.
Similarly, if your practice treats people in recovery from addiction, then the language you use should probably be empowering and inclusive to show you value support systems and a sense of belonging, instead of words and ideas that only focus on the perils of drug abuse.
Images and typography, even the arrangement of page elements on your site and the colors you choose, should clearly and instantaneously represent your "brand."
If you include less-than-stellar images or graphics, or fail to set up your blog using very basic design principles, readers may come to dislike this impression, which may be your first and only chance to reach out to them.
This is one reason why hiring an inbound marketing team to design and populate your blog might be the best money you ever spent. Designers and writers are skilled in communicating tone in a way that not only serves the content, but has a subliminal impact on the reader.
Your involvement in social media will naturally branch out from inbound marketing efforts. Your medical practice may need to promote more than just the business, and a blog's natural integration with social networks will serve these functions. For instance, you may wish to broaden the reputation of your medical practice in your community, or strive to become a thought leader in your field.
In any case, this means you'll be spending time "branding" in social media and networking. Whether it's Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, Periscope, YouTube... whatever you broadcast and amplify into the vast noisy wilderness known as the Internet must be consistent with the tone of your blog.
Too much or too little information at the wrong time can make a patient's healthcare journey even harder than it already is. Even inside a blog, you need to make sure you aren't overcomplicating or oversimplifying your message.
Knowing your audience's level of health literacy is critical here. Health literacy measures how well a patient can acquire, understand, and apply basic medical information in order to make the best healthcare choices.
Health literacy and your blog
How can your blog best respond to major disparities in health literacy in your community?
- Use plain language. There are a number of tools now available to help healthcare practitioners keep their messages simple so that everyone can be on the same page.
- Keep information tidy. Share it in small, simple packages using images, infographics, and other user-friendly design elements to make it accessible to readers at every level of health literacy.
- Provide translations. Second-language versions of important posts are a good place to start, especially if you live in a diverse community of bilingual or multilingual families.
- Use multimedia. Reading isn't always the best way to reach your audience. Videos, animations, or podcasts that your blog visitors can upload may circumvent any preexisting literacy problems.
- Don't assume. What comes as second nature to many healthcare professionals is foreign territory for others. Even the smartest people don't always know how to read prescriptions, for instance. Many people struggle to file medical claims on their own. And people with barriers (language or hearing, in example) may not fully process instructions given to them at the clinic. Always be explicit and patient in the delivery of your content.
Granted, a patient's ability to read and comprehend medical information is still their challenge to overcome; your healthcare blog will not fix those issues.
But what you can do is use language and concepts intelligently in your blog so that you don't lose your readers. You may, in fact, inspire them!
Your success serving any patient as a medical professional—whether via a blog or in a face-to-face visit—will always depend upon your ability to ascertain just where that patient resides along the continuum of care. Some are just beginning their healthcare journeys, while others are seasoned veterans.
Your blog is a great tool for reaching out to them. If you can learn to anticipate their concerns and understand their fears, you can use your blog to address these with content that meets, or even exceeds, their expectations. A little generosity on your part can go a long way to gain the trust and respect of a prospective patient looking for help.
The blog is, fortunately, considered by many to be a perpetual work in progress. This allows you, as the blogger, ample latitude for testing out strategies for reaching out to patients (both existing and prospective).
The three Ts—Trust, Tone, and Tact—can help you simplify this effort. Your blog is the perfect vehicle for delivering on all three concepts. Ask yourself: is my blog content meeting the demands implied in the three Ts? If not, reassess and tinker with your blog until you can answer, Yes.
Coming on Thursday: Headline...header...title...H2...what do they mean?
The New England Journal of Medicine