By Heidi Y. Lawrence
We will all be communicators of health and medicine at some point in our lives. A simple visit to the doctor, a discussion about healthcare legislation with family and friends, or even a trip to Whole Foods might ask us to consider the wide range of ways we define health, how to weigh conflicting evidence, or how to make decisions in the face of medical or scientific uncertainty.
Those whose jobs require them to communicate, analyze, and teach complex information about health and medicine are challenged daily to address multifaceted, complex problems that arise with communication. Balancing regulations, scientific information, and an array of audience literacy and expertise levels are just some ways in which communicating in this context is a confounding and complicated task. The STC HealthMed community is designed as a gathering place for facilitating connections and problem solving among communicators interested in this distinct set of concerns.
A SIG Focused on Health and Medical Communication
The STC HealthMed Special Interest Group (SIG) was started last year with a goal of providing a community for support, guidance, professionalization, and connection for communicators and researchers in these distinctive environments. These communicators have tasks in common with technical communicators in other environments. They advocate for audiences, work with technical experts to translate complicated information to lay readers, and struggle to communicate proprietary information about company products in ways that are compliant and clear but also do not reveal trade secrets. What often makes these challenges unique, however, are the stakes of their communications tasks—if patients do not understand instructions, they might take medications improperly; if equipment is not used correctly, diagnoses might be missed; or if lay audiences do not accurately understand a study result or finding, improper conclusions might be reached about the implication of a study. These particular situations of health and medical communication can affect us all and how we understand medicine, science, and our health.
Other members of the STC HealthMed community include those who research and teach medical and health communication. In adjacent academic fields, such as the rhetoric of health and medicine (RHM) and the medical and health humanities, researchers work to forge academic connections to analyze and examine how medical and health communication works. These researchers form multidisciplinary teams with medical and scientific experts to better understand patient health literacy, prepare new generations of technical communicators for the unique challenges of medical and health communication, and work in legal and policy environments to examine and change communications standards. For these members, STC HealthMed is a hub for connecting with practitioners, promoting understanding of day-to-day needs and challenges, and creating teaching and research practices that are more responsive to these challenges.
Questions and Goals
Consequently, STC HealthMed is a community of communicators—writers, editors, researchers, developers—who seek out each other for best practices on communicating about health and medicine across a wide range of industries. Already, our SIG has built some online spaces, including our social media accounts and website, for connecting and collaborating.
At the 2019 STC Technical Communication Summit & Expo in Denver, CO, a group of us gathered to discuss questions and issues most pressing in our daily jobs. Some of the questions that emerged included:
- How can technical communicators write about algorithms that they can’t talk about for proprietary reasons?
- How can technical communicators work with automated technologies, like chat bots and automated text, to better reach patients?
- How can technical communicators account for populations and communities who might be unfriendly or resistant readers of our work?
- How can academics and practitioners form productive connections to study and produce more adaptive text?
There are no easy answers to the above questions. STC HealthMed therefore functions as a place to work through and find community in these questions with other professionals.
Over the months and years to come, STC HealthMed SIG members will aim to connect to address problems, help identify common lessons learned and best practices, and professionalize in ways that are most useful to our members. This special issue of Intercom offers one channel for beginning these conversations that we can continue online and offline through webinars, social media discussions, and collaborations. More questions, topics, and issues are certainly waiting to be explored. The aim of the group is to function as a place for connection over our common concerns, allowing our shared goal for improving communication to guide the solutions we envision for effective, responsive communication in health and medical environments.