Most of us don’t need science to tell us so, but research shows that when someone starts noticing unusual health symptoms, a common first instinct is to Google them. Data from the search engine shows that 1 out of every 20 searches is health-related.
In some cases, amateur medical research leads to Yahoo Answers or another obscure forum where amateurs offer their diagnoses and personal experiences. Instead of reviewing such results with an air of skepticism, some searchers accept what they read online as reliable data and self-diagnose with whatever the Internet consensus seems to be.
Welcome to the age of “cyberchondria,” in which compulsive searching about illnesses online based on certain symptoms the patient believes he or she has (with no other evidence than his or her subjective opinion) is a syndrome in and of itself.
How do we approach health communications without feeding the cyberchondria monster? It’s important to combat sensationalism and headline-grabbing stories with content that includes responsible, medically sound advice. Media campaigns around various illnesses are the key to ensuring that messages to promote healthy lifestyle choices and preventive healthcare end up hitting home.
Here are 10 tips for successful healthcare communications:
1. Underscore the role of healthcare professionals.
The message that only medical professionals can provide a diagnosis and prescribe treatment is an all-encompassing premise that must be clear in all health-related communications.
2. Describe the backdrop.
The snapshot of an illness is often very broad, so it’s important for health communicators to offer a brief overview of a medical condition’s most salient aspects, including socioeconomic, cultural, and historical factors.
3. Put the scope into context.
Giving prevalence figures is great, but if the figures allow for a comparison with something the readership is more familiar with—say, the number of deaths from a certain illness vs. the number of deaths from car accidents—that will make the story easier to understand.
4. Provide first-person accounts.
A story we heard from “a friend of a friend” is not the same as something we have experienced ourselves. A firsthand account makes a big emotional impact and is a very useful tool for campaigns.
5. Reference your sources.
It is just as important to know who said something as it is to know what they said or how they said it. As well as including expert comments, it is crucial to include references to the sources of information you choose to quote. Consider providing links to allow readers to consult them directly.
6. Handle statistics with care.
It is not unusual to see headlines with attention-grabbing statistics that turn out to be less impressive than advertised. Bear in mind that a study based on a sample of 1,000 people is not the same as one with a sample of 1 million. It is a good idea to stop and think for a moment about how representative the figures you’re citing really are, and communicate accordingly.
7. Prioritize your scientific information.
It is good practice to critically analyze the relevance of a scientific study. A mental checklist could include an evaluation of the standing of the institution that performed the study, whether or not a party with a vested interest in the results of the study paid for the research, the study length and type, and even if knowledgeable peers have critically reviewed the study.
8. Choose the right words.
As well as considering whether or not it is appropriate to use technical terms, it is also good practice to check that you are using the right words, particularly when handling a topic that could cause serious concern. For example, when discussing sensitive topics such as mental illnesses, choosing the right words can be the difference between perpetuating false myths and helping to change misconceptions.
9. Cut anything that does not add value.
Reveling in details that have more to do with morbid fascination than genuine information limits the efficiency of a communications action. If information is not truly useful, why include it? When an illness becomes popular in world news, such as the Zika virus, it can be easy to talk about the disease in terms of current events, rather than important facts. Make sure you’re including the information the searchers are looking for and not just noting unusual, sensationalized cases.
10. Represent the standpoint of everyone involved.
The more voices that appear in a story about an illness, the more interesting, enriching and resonating it will be for the audience. Consider how a disease may impact more than just one person, such as family members and caretakers, and share their points of view.