I’ve had two interactions in the past two weeks that reminded me of something profound we all know but can often neglect as healthcare marketers:

Communications around education and post-care expectations not only improve health outcomes, they reduce anxiety. And feelings of empowerment, assurance and control are powerfully pain relieving.

It started with mastectomy tattoos

First, I attended the grand opening of Grace, a powerful documentary illustrating how new approaches to empowerment are helping breast cancer survivors reclaim and redefine their lives. Specifically, Northwestern Medicine in Chicago is doing amazing things in partnering with renowned mastectomy tattoo artist David Allen. It’s cutting-edge stuff you can read more about in the U.S. News & World Report, Chicago Tribune and Journal of the American Medical Association.

In the documentary and the following panel discussion, which included breast cancer survivors, Allen and leaders from Northwestern Medicine, the topic was nearly singular: Patients become ridden with anxiety due to feeling powerless and are uninformed following treatment. “No one told me how cold the new breast tissue would be,” the documentary’s namesake told the audience. “No one told me how I should talk with my family about cancer or that they would be on an emotional ride of their own,” an audience member and survivor began a series of staggeringly like sentiments from many survivors in the audience.  

And flowed into children’s behavioral health

Most recently, I had the pleasure of mingling with an amazing group of dedicated physicians, researchers and philanthropists in my role as a board member on the Children’s Research Fund, the primary fundraising arm for research conducted at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. I left inspired by one of their newest recruits – Dr. John Walkup, Head of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry. Walkup says, “sickness, especially the acute kind, makes people anxious. And anxiety is contagious.”

In that conversation, I instantly recalled the panel at the documentary opening and the echo chamber of survivors in the audience craving knowledge and empowerment. Soon I found myself deep into conversations with Dr. Walkup around empathy fatigue, contagious anxiety and the inability of physicians to dedicate enough time for treatment follow-up.

So, back to my point

Communications around education and post-care expectations not only improve health outcomes, they reduce anxiety. And feelings of empowerment, assurance and control are powerfully pain relieving.

In my experience as a healthcare marketer, one of the first areas that tend to get chopped in the face of shrinking budgets is educational and outcome-related communications. The rationale makes sense on the surface. Volume keeps the lights on and our primary marketing role is to help patients find and receive the treatment in support of those volume goals. But it’s where the rubber meets the road in planning conversations when we need to remember where some of the biggest patient needs and human impact potential intersect.

I suspect one of the nation’s leading psychiatrists, Dr. Walkup, is right. We’ve all likely experienced the contagiousness and pain of anxiety. As communicators, we can’t actually treat heart disease or perform liver transplants. We can, however, treat pain – pain that comes from the anxiety of not knowing what comes next, not knowing whom to talk to and uncertainty about how to reclaim power.

Let’s stick a pin in this one to revisit next planning cycle. Then, let’s fight for the opportunity to launch educational and empowering content, even in the face of reduced budgets. To abandon the passive “they can just search our website” approach. To truly provide pain relief in marketing.

Christy Kelly is a VP, Group Account Director at Gatesman and a passionate advocate for integrated, relevant marketing communications, specializing in healthcare. She knows that marcom strategies need to embrace, not fight the blurred lines of patient and provider engagement and has led all variety of internal, external B2C and B2B healthcare marcom activities.

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