Communicating health information effectively and engagingly is hard, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. I recently attended the PRSA 2014 Health Academy Conference, and I was reminded—by both the presenters and the attendees—that what we do as health communicators is challenging, but it can also make a real difference. If we can reach one patient, change one behavior, improve one life, well, that’s pretty significant.
The theme of this year’s conference was New Realities, New Rules: Sharpening Your Competitive Edge in Health Care PR. As health communicators, we are definitely working under new realities and working with new rules.
Speaking at the conference, Mark Little, CEO of Storyful, a unique organization dubbed “the news agency for the social media age,” talked about how we can operate within these new parameters. He asked us to consider what would happen if we started over from scratch with our communications plans in the middle of what he called the “social revolution.” Previously, we were the storytellers. We told our audience what was news. We called the shots—quite literally in some cases. But now, our audience just assumes that it can connect socially via technology. We no longer control the message, because we’re no longer the storyteller. A true testament to this statement is YouTube, for example, where approximately 100 hours of video are uploaded by users every minute.
So we know people use the Internet, and we know they are using it to search for health information: 72 percent of people are searching for health information on the Internet, 52 percent are searching on smartphones, and another 41 percent are seeking health information on social media.
The key to being successful under these new rules of communication, says Little, is not new and fancy technologies (although new and fancy technologies can help—a lot in some cases). You don’t have to invest in a bunch of technology that you may not understand; you just have to understand your community. “We don’t think about technology,” Little said, adding that “we think about emotion, and the algorithm can’t tell you how someone feels about something.”
Storytelling as a way to convey information works across all industries, and it works especially well in health communication. In fact, a study published a few years ago in the Annals of Internal Medicine examined the effects of storytelling on patients with high blood pressure. The study found that listening to personal narratives of others talking about their experience helped control high blood pressure as well the addition of more medications.
“The magic of stories lies in the relatedness they foster,” said lead researcher Dr. Thomas Houston. “Marketers have known this for a long time, which is why you see so many stories in advertisements.”
As health communicators, it is important to remember that health is a very personal subject, and storytelling is a very personal way to deliver messages. So if you’re looking for something “out of the box,” think stories. You’re patients will be listening. And more likely, your patients will be waiting—and willing—to tell their stories. Are you listening?