When you write health information you need to be clear, concise, accurate and help people understand how to maintain and improve their overall well-being, and to prevent further illness.
Unfortunately, many writers get it wrong. The internet is full of conflicting health advice, written by people who don’t undertake their own research, or have no credible health qualifications to back up their claims. Often information is sourced from ‘wellness bloggers’, who make claims based on their personal or anecdotal evidence. Even where the information presented is correct, often the format and language used, makes it inaccessible to the majority of people.
So how do you write health content for the wider consumer market? Here are my top 11 tips.
1. Know your audience
Before you even begin, you need to know who your audience is. Is it men or women? People who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth? Those with a chronic illness? Young parents, or people caring for the elderly? Have they recently been diagnosed with a medical condition? Or are they people who want to reduce their risk for chronic disease? Once you know this, you must get into their head, so to speak. Understand what their concerns and fears are. What are the key things they want or need to know? How will they be feeling about the topic?
2. Connect with your audience
To make your message engaging, you must talk TO your audience, not ABOUT them. Use the second person ‘you’, instead of words such as ‘individuals’, ‘consumers’, and ‘patients’. Write as if they are sitting across from you, and you’re having a conversation with them.
3. Don’t assume prior knowledge
While it’s possible your audience has some knowledge on the health topic you’re writing on, don’t assume they do. Cover all bases and explain procedures and medications in a simple way. For example, if you’re writing about breast cancer, don’t talk about ‘mammography screening’. Explain what a mammogram is (e.g. and x-ray of the breast), and how it’s used to screen (check) for cancer. Don’t assume your audience has prior knowledge when writing patient health information. Click To Tweet
4. Use plain English
It’s very important to use simple words when writing health content. Often those who are concerned about their health are feeling overwhelmed and afraid. Reading information that’s difficult to understand is just another burden for them. Those who don’t have English as their first language can also find some words hard to understand. You can use simple words, without sounding patronising. For example, swap ‘bi-annually’ for ‘twice a year’; ‘fundamental’ with ‘basic’; ‘participate’ with ‘take part’, etc.
My blog Why “dumbing down” health content is just plain smart talks more about this.
5. Use medical terminology sparingly
While we’re on the subject of words, use medical terminology sparingly. If you must use a medical term explain what it is, in simple language. Writing consumer patient information is a chance to help consumers understand some of these terms so they can better understand their health. For example, if you’re writing about bowel screening, don’t just mention that some people may need a colonoscopy. Explain what a colonoscopy is, why it’s used, how it’s done and what it may find. This gives more information to the reader and helps remove fears about the issue.
6. Don’t show off
If you specialise in writing health information, you probably have a wide knowledge and understanding of many health topics and medical terminology. Don’t be tempted to show off by going off on a tangent or using language that is more suited to clinicians. Remember, your audience. Keep things simple and to-the-point.
7. Write health information that is accurate and current
As health writers, we have an enormous responsibility to get it right. There is far too much information doing the rounds, that is in-accurate, or out-of-date, which leads to people making wrong or harmful decisions about their health. Source your information from reputable organisations and peak bodies. When talking about treatments, only focus on those that are evidence-based. When quoting statistics, only use the latest available. If referring to a medical study, ensure it’s no older than five years old, and provide a link to the original study. You should also include a list of references at the end of your article. Or at the very least keep all references on file for every story you write, just in case anyone queries the information you’ve written.
8. Keep it short
Keep your piece short and to-the-point. While you need to provide plenty of information, (e.g. statistics, signs and symptoms of a disease, causes, treatment, etc.), keep your article to around 600-800 words. The average consumer is busy and often skim reads information. By writing a lengthy article, you run the risk of turning your audience away and not reading it at all. If the topic is complex and involved, consider breaking it up into different parts or creating a series of fact sheets that give a briefer overview.
9. Break up text with headers
The average person skim-reads articles so it’s a good idea to break up your text with lots of sub-headings. This signals to the reader what information you’re covering in that paragraph, so they can access that quickly. It also ensures information looks less overwhelming than large slabs of text.
10. Provide action points
Always, always tell the consumer something that they can do to improve their own health. It might be something simple, but it’s important to encourage people to feel they have some control over their health. This is particularly important for people who have just been diagnosed with a medical condition. These people often feel as if their life is out of control. By giving them something to do (even if it’s providing tips to reduce stress), they feel more in control of their health, which is important for their overall mental health.
11. Write to empower, not to scare
Finally, it’s important to empower your audience rather than scare them. People with health issues may already feel anxious or fearful. Those who want to improve or protect their health want to feel it’s possible. While it’s important to talk about risk factors and complications, you should take care to use positive, reassuring language when doing so.
As health writers, we have a unique opportunity to inspire behaviour change and improve the overall health and well-being of Australians. We don’t necessarily need health qualifications to write health content, but we do need to ensure what we write is both accurate and accessible.
Crafting health content for consumers is what I do best, so if you’d like my help, please get in touch.