By Kirk St.Amant | Guest Editor
Today health and wellness accounts for some 4.2 trillion dollars of the global economy. At the same time, technological advances continually change how we engage in health-related and medical activities. This situation represents a perfect opportunity for technical communicators, but how do we become part of these developments?
Perhaps the best place to start is understanding contexts of care—the settings in which health and medical communication occur. These settings vary from person to person and involve different tasks and technologies. Usability, however, is central to success in all these situations. The audience needs to use materials to achieve an objective in a situation. The better technical communicators understand these contexts, the more effectively they can participate in them.
Understanding the Context of Care
These contexts consist of three interconnected areas: medical, health, and care. While sometimes used interchangeably, these terms do not mean the same things. “Medical” refers to the information one collects, specifically information on a particular biochemical process. This focus, which involves information like blood pressure, is “medical” in nature. This situation means usable materials need to reflect the collection and use of medical information. Approaches to this could involve creating interfaces that display related medical information (for example, readings for diastolic and systolic pressure on an automated blood pressure cuff), or they could be instructions referencing how medical information connects to a process (such as how to use systolic blood pressure numbers when taking someone’s blood pressure). Usability involves knowing what medical information is essential to a user’s objectives, and providing it appropriately for the related setting.
“Health” refers to the metrics used to interpret medical information. A blood pressure reading is meaningless. It needs to be compared to a standard to determine if that reading indicates a healthy blood pressure. In terms of usability, materials need to include features that allow users to evaluate the health of an individual (including themselves) based on the medical information they’ve collected. This could be a table explaining how to assess the blood pressure readings one has collected. It could also be a Web interface that offers interpretations when one enters medical data into it (like “Blood pressure levels are above normal”). The key is providing users with a mechanism for understanding a medical situation.
“Care” encompasses the processes individuals perform to address or maintain a particular condition. The objective of care is to return an individual’s medical situation and readings to levels considered “healthy” and maintain an individual’s medical levels within the range for “healthy.”
Care is the process that determines what usability is based on the tasks individuals perform in a situation. Where care is administered affects what can be done and how. These factors affect what constitutes a usable design in a setting. By understanding these dynamics, individuals can create materials that meet users’ needs and expectations for medical, health, and care in a context of care.
Usability in Contexts of Care
Effective health and medical communication involves creating for contexts of care. It could include interfaces for electronic heath records systems, health monitoring apps for mobile devices, or the manuals accompanying medical devices. In all cases, the audience needs to use that item to perform care-related activities in a setting. Knowing how dynamics of medical, health, and care converge in such situations can help technical communicators develop materials that are usable in those environments.
Understanding contexts of care involves knowing who will perform a care-related activity in a setting and what they need to do. Specifically, technical communicators must determine the user’s knowledge of the medical, health, and care factors associated with a context. They must also identify the details of the environment in which persons will provide care. They can use this knowledge to create materials that meet the user’s understanding of and needs involving a care-related process.
The factors to consider in contexts of care are numerous. They can include the design of content for informational sources, like websites, that individuals use to learn about care. They can also encompass the materials one needs to create—from mobile apps, to online data visualizations, to printed instruction manuals. The key is understanding user expectations and the context where individuals will use items. Technical communicators can apply this information to create the materials needed and the designs essential to usability in a context of care.
In This Special Issue
This issue examines how technical communicators can participate in different contexts of care. The settings in which care is administered will only become more complex over time. Approaches that help technical communicators understand these environments can contribute to professional success. The context of care approach offers a framework for addressing usability approaches for such situations. The topics examined in this issue provide insights into contexts of care. You can use this information to consider how you might contribute to effective communication practices in different contexts of care.
- The issue begins with Sarah Brenckman Leida’s discussion of her move from educational to medical communication. She also presents strategies and resources for understanding different health and medical communication areas.
- Next, Bryan Tutt explains how to apply content creation skills to develop materials for health and medical professionals. Specifically, he provides pointers for developing content for professional newsletters targeted at physicians.
- Deborah Hemstreet’s article describes how technical communication skills add value to the processes of publishing research articles. She reveals how standard technical communication skills can contribute to the successful dissemination of cutting-edge medical research.
- Candice Welhausen continues this discussion of value by describing how data visualizations can help convey health and medical information. By overviewing medical visuals used at different times, she reviews strategies for conveying health-related data in visual form.
- Russell Kirkscey’s review of health apps reveals opportunities for contributing to health and medical communication via new technologies. He also highlights situations in which technical communicators can contribute value to the design and use of medical technologies.
- In the final feature in this issue, Elizabeth Angeli also examines opportunities by noting how emergency care situations represent areas where technical communicators can make contributions. Her description of these contexts includes approaches for interacting with different healthcare professionals.
These entries provide perspectives on the care-related environments for which technical communicators design materials. Consider how you will build on these perspectives to develop your own understanding of contexts of care.