Moving Beyond Data to Spotlight Patient Voices

When it comes to health care, we’re constantly bombarded by clinical information and terminology like patient outcomes, efficacy and quality of life, which can make it easy to focus directly on data and lose sight of the human impact of medicine. Compelling research is an important part of how we show scientific innovation and impact, but a patient’s voice provides a powerful, emotional connection that can open audiences’ eyes to the “why” that straight facts aren’t able to accomplish.

Bristol-Myers Squibb recognized a need for patient voices in the cancer community to help navigate life after a diagnosis. The company’s Life with Cancer series shares diverse perspectives of cancer survivors to call attention to everyday challenges and show what it’s really like to live with cancer, often as a chronic condition, with the goal to help patients feel supported every step of the way.

The backdrop of compelling patient stories doesn’t necessarily have to be the typical healthcare setting.  In fact, many times a patient’s voice and scenario can be more impactful when it’s extracted directly from the community in which your audience lives. The Aetna Foundation, together with the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Counties, recently launched the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge – an ambitious nationwide effort that empowers local organizations to tackle public health challenges. As part of the Challenge, the Foundation and participants shared learnings and best practices via an ongoing learning network. For example, AJ, a Mecklenburg County high school student at the time, told his inspirational story of how he lost nearly 180 pounds and turned his life around by getting involved with public health initiatives in his community.

Patients don’t have be the only voice when it comes to smart storytelling. These voices can extend beyond the usual patients to show the behind the scenes of a patient’s journey – the caregivers, the researchers, the physicians and nurses – the unheard stories behind the story. Pfizer’s blog, Pfizer365, features the work of former and current Pfizer employees, where every day of the year a different story is highlighted to share how Pfizer is always working to improve the health of people all over the world.

In today’s increasingly competitive market, it’s clear that using patients’ experiences as a communications tool can create significant impact and engagement that other tactics can’t. But before jumping headfirst into a great story brought to you by a physician, researcher or even directly from a patient – keep in mind the three “C” considerations.

1. Context
Covering a positive outcome on a recent appendectomy and telling your audience that Joe Smith is feeling much better isn’t exactly a compelling narrative. It’s important to do your research to make sure the story and patient are the real deal and will motivate your audience to take action. What makes the story dramatic or surprising? Can it be put into words that can be easily understood by consumers? Is it a voice that is not often given a chance to be heard and will stand out?

In addition, there needs to be a valid and relevant reason to tell the story in order for it be effective. For example, consider news that is currently on the mind of health care consumers, such as the opioid addiction crisis. On the other side, think of a testimonial that could help raise needed awareness for a relatively new or rare health condition or topic.

2. Confidentiality
It is critical to conduct your due diligence to ensure patients’ stories are safeguarded and approvals are obtained for every use. Medical professionals today are bound by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), which provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information, prohibiting the medical community from publicly disclosing health-related identifiable information about patients, their household members and even their relatives.

As storytellers, we must realize it is a privilege, and not a right, to share such a personal and sensitive story with people who are essentially strangers to the patient. Be sure to gain full consent from the patient with clear indication of how and where the testimonial will be used, even if you’re not identifying the patient by name, or just posting a photo on social media

3. Channels
Consider all the different networks and platforms to leverage the patient’s voice that would best help further the overall purpose of your communications and reach the right audiences. For example, short videos are a great way to visually bring the story to life and provide authenticity for consumers. Even just literally hearing a story directly from the patient through a radio or podcast interview can trigger listeners’ heart strings. And of course, social media and online blogs are crucial and can offer a voice to patients that may not usually be heard.

If you’re trying to reach professionals in the medical community, consider live events like medical conferences and grand rounds to activate your narrative. Remember that your employees and members also want to hear that their work matters. Are there ways to engage live with patients such as a local Town Hall meeting or video Q+A as part of an online newsletter? Think about mapping your audiences against your most compelling patient stories – how can you effectively create connection and continuity?

Remember these three C’s as you develop your next patient narrative strategy. Want to brainstorm the right next steps for the stories you want to tell? Contact us today.