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Health & Pharma Marketing

​Why I’m uncomfortable with healthcare marketing’s obsession with ‘patients’


By Frankie Everson, Co-founder and head of strategy

May 1, 2024 | 5 min read

Atomic Matter’s Frankie Everson has lost patience with healthcare’s dependency on language like ‘patients.’ She shares how her time with illness revealed just how dehumanizing the term actually is.

Patients waiting in a hospital room

As a strategist working on health brands, I’ve spent the best part of my career trying to imagine and evoke what has always been described as the ‘patient experience.’ I’ve diligently mapped out ‘patient journeys,’ trawling the internet for quotes and blogs that help bring to life the intricacies of living with a particular disease. I’ve tried my best to bring ‘patient insight’ into my briefs.

Yet it was only a couple of years ago, by becoming a ‘patient’ myself, that I recognized I had barely been scratching the surface. Having experienced the emotional trauma of acute illness and having been at the whim of an often painfully slow health system, I was able to see with great clarity how the single bullet point on many of my patient journey maps - ‘awaits results’ - is actually an agonizing, emotional ordeal which can feel insurmountable. I was utterly in awe of the angelic powers of nurses, once relegated to ‘additional touchpoints’ on my detailed diagrams. I was struck by the loneliness of sickness, no matter the size of your support network; and how abstractly and carelessly I grasped that notion before.

There is a huge chasm between what we think we know as healthcare marketers and what we actually know about the experiences of people living with illness. For an industry where humanity should be at the very heart of what we do, there’s a startling lack of empathy.

Why is this the case?

I believe the word ‘patient’ has a lot to answer for. It’s a word which, as an industry, we use all the time; yet there’s a certain detachment to it which I now find uncomfortable (though using it is a hard habit to shake off).

It allows people to be described in functional terms, presented as case studies in medical textbooks: ‘23-year-old woman with bi-lateral ovarian tumor’; ‘55-year-old man diagnosed with stage four non-small-cell lung carcinoma’. It allows us to bypass the moment of devastation when you’re 23 and single, and the doctors explain that you may never have children, or you’re 55 and you’re told you have 3 months to live and need to find a way to explain this to your wife and kids. It allows us to sidestep the idea that these are people. It could be any one of us.

The word ‘patient’ also allows us to make huge generalizations when creating marketing communications - ‘Cancer patients wouldn’t be playing tennis’; ‘She doesn’t look enough like a diabetes patient.’ At best, this kind of generalization is careless; at worst, we risk implying that a disease state defines a person.

So, let’s ditch that word: ‘patient.’ ‘Person’ will do.

Let’s step away from our desks - from research reports, from social listening, from blog scraping - and actually talk to people. Whether it’s a chat over coffee and cake, or something more formal like an ethnography study, we must find ways to go beneath the surface and understand what really makes them tick: their hopes and fears, their likes and dislikes, what keeps them up at night. By grounding our work in a place of truth and realism and seeing ‘patients’ as the individuals they really are, we bridge the gap between marketing intentions and the raw realities of illness, creating impactful and deeply resonant stories.

It’s time to stop the sense of detachment that so often plagues our industry and to put humanity back into healthcare. It’s the motivating factor behind the launch of Atomic Matter, and, drawing from our own personal experiences with serious illness, we’re making it our mission to do more of the kind of work that strikes a chord: work that has a measurable impact on the world, because it comes from a place of truth. Our health matters, and the words we choose to talk about it matter - more than in any other industry. Watch this space.

Frankie Everson is co-founder and head of strategy at the newly launched creative healthcare agency Atomic Matter.

This piece ran as part of The Drum's Health and Pharma Focus.

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