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Why I’m Uncomfortable With Healthcare Marketing’s Obsession With “Patients”

Atomic Matter’s Frankie Everson has lost patience with the healthcare industry’s reliance on language like “patients.” She talks about how her time with illness revealed how inhumane the term really is.

As a strategist working on healthcare brands, I’ve spent most of my career trying to imagine and evoke what’s always described as the “patient experience.” I have been diligently mapping “patient journeys,” scouring the internet for quotes and blogs that help bring to life the intricacies of living with a particular disease. I have done my best to incorporate ‘patient insight’ into my instructions.

Yet it was only a few years ago, when I became a “patient” myself, that I realized I had barely scratched the surface. After experiencing the emotional trauma of an acute illness and being exposed to the vagaries of an often painfully slow healthcare system, I was able to see with great clarity how the one point on many of my patient journey maps – ‘await results’ – was actually a painful, emotional ordeal that can feel insurmountable. I was in complete awe of the angelic powers of nurses, once relegated to “extra touchpoints” on my detailed charts. I was struck by the loneliness of illness, regardless of the size of your support network; and how abstractly and carelessly I understood that idea before.

There is a huge gap between what we are think As healthcare marketers, we know what we do Actually know about the experiences of people living with an illness. For an industry that should put humanity at the heart of what we do, there is a surprising lack of empathy.

Why is this the case?

I believe the word ‘patient’ has a lot to explain. It’s a word we use all the time as an industry; yet there is a certain detachment in it that I now find uncomfortable (although using it is a difficult habit to shake).

It allows people to be described in functional terms, presented as case studies in medical textbooks: ’23-year-old woman with bilateral 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 three months to live and a find a way to explain this to your wife and children. It allows us to get around the idea that this is so people. It could be any of us.

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

So let’s leave that word ‘patient’ out of the way. ‘Person’ is sufficient.

Let’s get away from our desks – from investigative reporting, from social media listening, from blog scraping – and actually conversation to people. Whether it’s a chat over coffee and cake, or something more formal like an ethnographic study, we need to find ways to go beneath the surface and understand what Real makes them tick: their hopes and fears, their likes and dislikes, what keeps them awake at night. By grounding our work in truth and realism and seeing ‘patients’ as the individuals they really are, we bridge the gap between marketing intent and the raw reality of illness, creating impactful and deeply resonant stories.

It’s time to end the sense of disconnect that so often plagues our industry, and bring humanity back into healthcare. It’s the motivating factor behind the launch of Atomic Matter, and based on 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 any other sector. Watch this space.

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

This piece was part of The Drum’s Health and Pharma Focus.