Web Writing for Healthcare: Our Guide to Doing It Right

You can find countless articles online about best practices for Web writing. But what about Web writing for healthcare institutions in particular? Not so much.

I’d like to fill that gap. But first, a clarification: This article covers consumer-facing copy about clinical service lines and programs that lives on a hospital’s website.

Now that we’re on the same page, let’s go.

1) Interview Doctors Effectively

Good writing begins with good research. And with Web writing for healthcare, research often means speaking with doctors.

The cliché about “not suffering fools gladly” was practically invented for physicians, and I don’t blame them. They have much better things to do (e.g. save lives, deliver babies) than waste their time with some ill-prepared writer.

Before the interview, be sure to do enough research to speak intelligently about the matter at hand. You don’t have to be a stone-cold expert or anything, but you can’t come off as a neophyte. Head in armed with a limited number of targeted questions — you’ll be lucky to have more than an hour with them, so efficiency really matters. Plus, remind them at the outset that you’re writing for a consumer audience and that they should give their answers accordingly.

2) Write Simply and Concisely

This seems like an obvious point, but many hospitals miss the boat nonetheless. Never forget who’s reading your healthcare content: for the most part, people without medical degrees. At best, the typical reader will have taken a biology course or two back in high school or college.

As a writer, then, you can’t just throw out terms like “roux-en-Y gastric bypass” or “pheochromocytomas” without some kind of clarification. Therein lies the greatest challenge of healthcare marketing writing: describing complex things like medical procedures and conditions as simply and concisely as possible.

Can you explain a vertebrae fracture analysis in a way that the average consumer can comprehend, all in 20 words or fewer? That’s what makes the healthcare writer’s task so tough.

3) Write with Empathy

People often visit a hospital’s site because they (or a loved one) need medical care. Some are coming to the hospital for the first time and are nervous about navigating the new surroundings. Others are facing major surgery or a life-threatening illness.

As a result, many readers are dealing with varying degrees of anxiety. Show that you get what they’re going through. Frame sentences in terms of you (e.g. “As you prepare for chemotherapy treatments …”) rather than we. Acknowledge that they may well have concerns — and reassure them that they’re in good hands.

If you can convey empathy and inspire confidence through your copy, then you’ve done good.

4) Stay on Message

A critical aspect of writing healthcare content is highlighting what makes a hospital different. For a small community hospital, you’ll likely emphasize things like the small, intimate feel and the comfort of receiving care close to home. For an academic medical center, meanwhile, you might mix in some warm-and-fuzzy messaging. But you’ll probably focus more on other benefits associated with larger institutions, such as the wide range of specialists and services, and access to advanced technology and clinical trials of new treatments.

In speaking with doctors or the folks in marketing, make sure you understand the hospital’s key points of distinction — and that those come through in the copy loud and clear.

5) Factor in SEO

With Web writing for healthcare, you have to be very strategic when weighing potential keywords. It’s just about impossible to compete for high-traffic terms like “cancer” or “heart care.” As with most any other industry, a successful SEO strategy requires a close look at long-tail keywords that you actually have a shot at winning. But really, that’s a complex topic that deserves its own blog post …

So, Who Does It Right?

Since 2008 I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several great hospitals in the Boston area. Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of time researching diseases and reviewing other hospitals’ websites. The one at the top of my Bookmarks list is Mayo Clinic. They manage to hit on all of the above points, and then some. My compliments!

Do you have any other tips for writing healthcare content? Please add your thoughts below.

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  1. Dan O'Sullivan says:

    Hi Tammy,
    Yes, great example of keeping the reader in mind — sounds like a glossary like that would be useful. Keep up the good work!

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