Things We (Really, Really) ❤️: Empathy in Health Comm

Doodle on stage with a microphone pointing to audience shouting “I see you! I see you! I see all of you!”

This week, we’re bringing you something a little different. CH President Stacy Robison wrote an article that was translated and published in a plain language bulletin from the
Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore called Klarspråk. Since we assume many of you, our dearest readers, do not read Swedish, we wanted to give you an opportunity to check out Stacy’s thoughts here. What follows is a slightly edited English version of the article. Enjoy!

One of the tenets of plain language is to write conversationally. When we write how we talk, we’re more likely to use familiar words and active voice. But there’s another reason to write as if we’re having a conversation, one that’s just as important to the success of our communications: connection.

To create meaningful communications — whether they’re campaigns, websites, or social media messages — we need to understand and care about our audience. In other words, we need to empathize with people.

This is especially important in health communication. In the United States, when we talk about health literacy, we often cite the statistic that 90 percent of adults struggle with complex health information. While this is correct, it frames the “problem” as an individual deficit. If we’re approaching this from a place of empathy, then we might reconsider — if the “problem” affects 90 percent of people, maybe it’s not them… Maybe it’s us!

In health care, studies show that empathy can improve patients’ emotional health, symptoms, and physiologic responses and increase medication adherence. This link between empathy and adherence is particularly fascinating. Another way to look at it is: feeling seen and heard makes people more likely to listen to and follow a recommended course of action. Why? Because empathy builds trust. And because negative emotions like fear and shame can make us feel invisible and get in the way of clear thinking and informed decision-making.

So what does this mean for our writing? One of the primary ways we express empathy is through language. Choosing familiar words, acknowledging emotion, and using inclusive language can go a long way toward building trust. After all, we’re not writing into a void. There are people on the other side of our words! Rather than talking down to them, let’s meet them where they are, use their language, and put ourselves in their shoes.

When we reject the stereotype of the noncompliant patient, when we refuse to stigmatize, or when we simply change a pronoun in our writing — we send a powerful message to our readers. A message more powerful than the most compelling statistics or the flashiest marketing campaigns. The message is: I see you.

Tweet about it: This week, @CommunicateHlth is bringing you thoughts on the importance of #empathy in #HealthComm from President Stacy Robison: #HealthLit


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