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Healthcare Writing: The Cure for Common Copy
By: Jerry Northup
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Healthcare organizations occupy the moral high ground of business, which is something of an advantage when it comes to writing for them. Doctors are easily described as “compassionate,” “skilled,” and “experienced.” Health systems are “cornerstones,” “working partners,” and “leaders” in the communities they serve. Individual careers, such as nursing, are generally accepted as “rewarding.” Using these words, writers don’t have to work all that hard to create plausible advertising. Unfortunately, the commonality of these terms gives rise to a condition called “bland copy.” The symptoms are numerous, but take heart; there is a cure.
The copy doctor is in. The remedy doesn’t come in generic form. Experienced observers will notice that, in many ways, healthcare advertising is fairly predictable — especially in cases where two different systems compete in the same market. Years ago, I found myself on the frontlines of this circumstance, trying to outflank a competitor’s “30-minute or less” ER guarantee. From on high came this input, “Let’s use ’29-minutes or less’ as a slogan.” Obviously too predictable, you say? Perhaps, but the tagline, “Why wait one more minute longer than you have to?” did have a nice ring to it.
Here are some other insights in encapsulated form: 
  • Trim down the “number of numbers” you use. News about the latest capital investments makes for interesting board meetings, but statistics of this nature are a snooze-fest outside of them. People don’t relate to numbers; they relate only to the ways those numbers translate into better outcomes. If you can’t put numbers into people terms, don’t put them into print.
  • Don’t “up-sell” the obvious. The public expects physicians to be board-certified, experienced, and credentialed, so anytime you use these terms in marketing you waste effort repeating what is already assumed to be true. That takes up space and time better spent communicating benefits that really matter to patients, such as how proprietary procedures result in shorter recovery times and fewer post-operative complications.
  • Avoid adding “insult-to-intelligence” injuries. Leading the largest health system in the region may be a decided advantage in a particular region, but it doesn’t have to be the central theme of every advertising campaign. Nor do you have to lean on phrases like “award-winning specialists” and “state-of-the-art technology” to underscore the simple concept that a hospital does, in fact, offer quality care. Submit a piece with a rash of statements like those and you should expect to hear a loud “Next!” from any focus group. 
Episodes of “bland copy” may not be endemic to healthcare, but they seem to present far too often in the industry for comfort. In my diagnosis, I see it as a symptom of healthcare systems using marketing as more of a vehicle to communicate with each other, rather than as an avenue to bring greater vision to the community. The superlatives may sound good on paper, but they rarely translate into substantive meaning beyond it. Remove them and the status of your copy will improve as prescribed.

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About the Author
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Gerald Northup has written professionally in the fields of advertising, marketing, social media, and corporate communications since the early ’90s. For a look at his blog posts and social media articles, as well as TV, radio, print, and website samples from his online portfolio, visit gnorthup1979.wix.com/44words.

Jerry is also a talented guitarist, an avid tennis player, and a lifelong student of linguistics.

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