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Tailor your talk

When communicating with patients online, research their environment thoroughly and communicate in a way that suits them, not you
Tailor dummy

The development of online resources that resonate effectively with a patient readership is associated with very specific considerations and issues. Importantly, patients are increasingly wary of which sources of information to trust, particularly in terms of the accuracy of medical content on the internet.

Tailoring your communications to the needs of your audience demands a careful approach, based on thorough research at the outset and the verification and endorsement of content by respected authorities, such as patient-support organisations. While it is always advisable to consider these communications on a case-by-case basis, there are some general considerations that apply to the development of all online patient resources, which we take a closer look at here.

Careful consideration of the following three areas will help you to ensure that your online resources are tailored appropriately to connect with your readership:

•  Understanding the patient environment
•  Presenting content in a clear and meaningful way
•  Supporting the patient beyond healthcare.

Understanding the patient environment
Before considering web content, it is important to understand your audience and its situation to ensure that your communications resonate with its needs and concerns. Firstly, it is critical to recognise that you are not targeting patients alone – patients are often surrounded by a complex social or support network, perhaps comprising carers, loved ones, children, families and friends, all of whom will likely also have an interest in the materials you are developing.

Furthermore, it is just as important to consider your audience's environment, which can vary greatly from disease to disease. For example, patients with certain conditions may gain 'heroic' status among peers and family, owing to pre-conceived perceptions of the disease or media portrayal; however, other conditions may have stigma attached or be largely 'invisible'.

Conducting thorough research – for example, through focus groups with patients, carers and other target audience representatives – will enable you to understand the perspectives of your readership and to design content that will connect with them and have a meaningful impact.

Patient insight work should be conducted in compliance with best practice for patient communications, as seen in the guidelines produced by Dr Angela Coulter, former chief executive of Picker Institute Europe, a UK-based research charity specialising in measuring and improving patients' experience. Involving a dedicated research agency at the start of this patient insight work could simplify the process.

Once content is developed, it would also be useful to gain feedback from a pilot project run with insight groups to verify the tone and structure of content.

Engaging expert counsel, such as that from key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the relevant disease area, before and during content development, can also play an important role in shaping your communications effectively. These interactions add a wealth of relevant insight, as well as building relationships and opening doors to future opportunities for related activities, such as  authorship of associated communications.

Dr Geraldine Leydon, senior researcher, Primary Medical Care, Faculty of Medicine, University of Southampton points out that, in the UK alone, 19.2 million households (73 per cent) have an internet connection. "These figures strongly illustrate that the web is an extremely powerful way to communicate health information; however, the quality of information is absolutely paramount. Equally, information isn't a panacea – patients may still need the place and time to discuss information they find online with someone qualified to help them interpret their findings reliably and assess its applicability to their particular situation," she said.

Presenting content in a clear and meaningful way

Even the highest-quality content relies on clear, considered presentation to foster meaningful engagement with patients. In addition to the usual website design considerations such as navigation, colour, font, layout and so on, it is especially important to take into account the tone of the language used in online patient communications. Content should strike a careful balance between clarity and delicacy, in order to avoid being blunt, patronising or overwhelming to the reader, in terms of either the science or the disease outlook.

Additionally, authenticating the site information is a solid stepping-stone to overcoming any potential trust issues that the readers might have. You might consider seeking approval of the content from a respected body or organisation that also champions public–patient involvement; this will be a valuable endorsement for the site, encouraging readers to trust its content more readily. Importantly, it should be verified that the site complies with any legal or regulatory requirements pertaining to the market or product.

How to present your website effectively. Is your content:

•  Written in clear language with a sensitive approach?
•  Endorsed by a respected, authoritative body?
•  Compliant with legal and/or regulatory requirements?
•  Supported by a suitable, visually engaging design scheme that will work for multiple users?
•  Logically structured and easy to navigate?
•  Complemented with appropriate graphics and imagery where appropriate?

Supporting the patient beyond healthcare
Beyond the boundaries of healthcare, patients – and carers, families and friends – are likely to want practical advice on how to deal with lifestyle issues that may arise as a consequence of disease and/or treatment; for example, how to manage disabilities and special needs, create living wills or overcome difficulties in securing travel insurance. A successful website will build a rapport with patients, supporting them beyond the scope of their disease and treatment and ensuring that they are offered – or clearly directed to – valued guidance on these issues. Naturally, all advice would need to be ratified, preferably by existing patient support organisations, with which a relationship could be built.

Applying expertise to successful patient communications
Outlined in the checklist below, several key considerations apply broadly to online patient communcation. Given the variations in patient environments, all web communications should be considered on a case-by-case basis to ensure that they are tailored to reflect specific disease and treatment factors. Engaging the help of a specialist healthcare communications agency with experience in this area can be invaluable in helping you to create online materials that not only communicate your key messages to patients effectively, but also build and strengthen relationships with patients and other support groups.

Check list for effective online communication with patients:

•  Ensure you have an accurate understanding of the patient environment
•  Engage expert counsel to ensure content is relevant and appropriate
•  Present content in a clear and meaningful way
•  Seek approval from a trusted authoritative body within your disease or product area
•  Proactively support the patient beyond healthcare.

The Author
Will Hind is MD at Alpharmaxim.
He can be contacted on +44 (0)161 929 0400 or at

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20th May 2011


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