The Coffey Blog

Writing for everyone in 2019: Inclusivity in healthcare content

Posted on: Monday, November 5, 2018

Laurel Johnson, Associate Editor

As a healthcare marketer, you want your communications to be accessible and inclusive.

Even with the best intentions, it's easy for language and word choice to slip into the outdated—or even the offensive. Blanket assumptions about gender identity, race and ethnicity, age, body type, and socioeconomic circumstances have the potential to alienate your readers.

Here's something we aspire to at Coffey: We want to empower our clients to communicate with their audiences, using inclusive, person-first language whenever possible.

Here are a few thoughtful considerations that are on our minds as we move forward, creating content that's educational and inclusive.

Gender and sex: What's relevant?

When it comes to inclusive writing, sometimes it's what you don't say that matters. For example, we often see "men and women" as a synonym for "all adults." The simplest solution to be more inclusive here is to make a habit of writing "adults" or "people," or in more conversational writing, "folks" works too.

You can also use this strategy when specifically addressing female and male health concerns. When writing about any condition associated with the reproductive system, opt for "people" more often than "men" or "women." It's a consideration for nonbinary and trans folks who also need these health services.

That's not to say that terms like "women's services" or "men's health" are taboo. Just be mindful of whom you're speaking to and why.

Another modern move: Embrace the singular "they," especially when the gender of the person being discussed is unknown. "Ask your provider. They can give you more options" reads just as well as "….He or she can give you more options." And it's a choice backed up by the AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style.

Race and ethnicity

Again, think of relevance. Don't mention race or ethnicity unless there is a concrete reason for doing so—and make sure that reason is clear to readers.

And consider this: While some health problems seem to be a bigger problem for certain demographics, there may be a social cause. For example, living in a racist society is bad for black people's blood pressure. So avoid taking the stance that, in this instance, black people are naturally more prone to high blood pressure. Focus on content that's helpful to your readers vs. assumptions, generalizations and statements that may infer blame.

Age and aging

Adages like "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" and "senior moment" are fraught, not to mention incorrect. Don't play into stereotypes that older people are unhealthy or in mental decline. Instead, use language that assumes the opposite and allows for a full range of humanity.

Be wary of bias statements about young people too. Don't use language that implies young people are naive, selfish or thoughtless. When in doubt, assume the best.

Young people also have their own unique stressors and are increasingly interested in wellness. And more than previous generations, they expect organizations to be inclusive in their language, including avoiding ideas that are dated, such as assumptions about gender roles and traditional families.

Speak to all bodies

Remember that excess weight is a risk factor for health problems, not a guarantee that they will happen. It's possible for overweight people to have healthy blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, an exercise routine, and plenty of energy. Avoid stating that extra pounds make someone unhealthy or unhappy by default. Instead, focus on healthy habits that are good for everyone, like nutrition and fitness.

And be aware that stigma and shame can also be harmful to health.

Put it in practice

Language is alive and always changing. That's why your best tool is often the human eye. Read your own words with an eye for bias. Have someone else read it. Take note of unqualified facts, blanket statements and value judgements about personal health. Meeting people where they are, with plenty of compassion and empathy, ups the chances your message will be heard.

A custom style guide for your organization can be a great tool for keeping communication consistent and sensitive. Besides the guides mentioned above, the Conscious Style Guide offers timely information on inclusive language that may be helpful in developing your own guidelines.

Related reading

Words matter: Impart hope when talking about chronic conditions
Health behaviors: Tips to promote and inspire change
Keep it fresh when planning health plan newsletters