Amid ongoing global health issues and a shifting economy, many experienced medical writers recognize an opportunity to expand their skill sets. For writers interested in moving into health communication, it is crucial to understand the difference between writing for a professional audience and communicating health information to the general public.
Defining Health Communication
As AMWA defines the term, health communication encompasses a variety of materials, from patient education and decision aids to health care public relations and medical journalism. The defining feature of health communication is that it is content written for nonmedical specialists. Because of these differences, many health communicators do not consider themselves medical writers. Although the documents differ, the two types of writers must research the medical literature, write clearly and accurately, and address an audience’s specific needs.
Health communication writers work in an array of settings, including public health offices, media publications, government agencies, and hospitals or outpatient medical institutions. Because the health communication arena is so vast, it is a common type of medical writing for freelance medical writers.
Why Health Communication Matters
While grant proposal writers create documents meant to raise funds and regulatory writers aim for airtight compliance, health communicators craft content focused on educating public audiences. Most health communication exists to promote health literacy.
CDC.gov defines health literacy as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” Thus, it is crucial for health communicators to make medical information as clear as possible so that readers can make informed decisions about their health care now and in the future.
Challenges of Health Communication
Health communication requires an entirely different approach than other types of medical communication. Knowledge about health and well‑being is necessary, but so too is an understanding of health literacy and numeracy and of ways to change health behaviors. Above all else, writers must be able to clearly and accurately explain complex medical concepts in plain language.
If you are interested in shifting from another type of medical writing to health communication, your success will depend on your ability to meet the following challenges.
Speaking to a Broad Audience
Writers accustomed to crafting highly technical documents for health care professionals often find it challenging to relay accurate information without using medical jargon. In health communication, your audience will include a wide range of ages, education, reading levels, degrees of health literacy, and cultural expectations. Sometimes, creating messages targeted to audiences based on their characteristics may be the best approach.
Emphasizing Why the Document Matters
Every writer should understand—and articulate—the purpose of a document. In medical writing for professional audiences, the purpose of each document is usually implicit. This is not always the case in health communication, especially when it comes to general health media, news releases, or public relations briefs. Medical writers in health communication must present a clear case for why the subject of the document is important to readers. What does the information mean to them in terms of their health and their behaviors? Why should they care?
Balancing Approachability and Precision
Medical writers in health communication walk a constant tightrope between generalizing too much (by leaving out crucial contraindications or case‑specific details) and using specialized terminology (which could be confusing or misinterpreted by the general public). Writers must keep their syntax, sentence structure, and paragraphs accessible and clear. Following guidelines and best practices for plain language is imperative.
Best Practices in Health Communication
Keep in mind these best practices for writing documents for public audiences.
- Avoid medical jargon whenever possible.
- Answer an implied “So what?” question as soon as possible in each document.
- Use storytelling—case studies, anecdotes, interesting quotes from subject matter experts—to craft content that is engaging and moving.
- Write using active voice (and second person when appropriate).
- Use plain language and simple sentences that could be understood by readers whose first language is not English.
Despite its surface simplicity, health communication is often a challenge for experienced medical writers. But practice makes perfect, and many writers could begin by identifying snippets of health communication in their current medical writing specialties. For instance, you could start with lay summaries of clinical study results or educational brochures for medical equipment or drugs with which you are deeply familiar.