Erik ClausenErik Clausen

Healthcare has experienced a self-rediscovery. Tools and technologies that were first designed for scientific research have found their way into the clinic, and patients and providers both increasingly turn to the data these provide for insights that guide patient care. Genomic testing steers cancer treatment, wearable and implantable devices wirelessly log and share biometrics, and this year researchers successfully tested gene editing on a human embryo for the first time.

As the worlds of healthcare and life science collide, organizations need communications strategies that speak comfortably to both — that help them evolve with the market landscape and position themselves appropriately in the integrated, science-based medical environment now arriving. We must dive deep into the science behind their brands and learn how to articulate it to stakeholders — from those paying for research to those performing it to those benefiting from the treatments and innovations it produces.

Monolingual messaging that glosses over new developments will lead to a different discovery: that audiences — ever bold and curious — have an almost entrepreneurial drive to leap to conclusions. Bake in a news cycle that’s often a few hours at most, giving audiences a very limited window to form a complete opinion, and the phenomenon becomes unavoidable. When we fail to communicate clearly about scientific advances in healthcare, audiences inevitably draw their own conclusions.

Don’t leave your message to the masses

An excellent case study comes from San Diego-based Organovo. The biotechnology company 3D-prints human tissue as a study tool for researchers and for some therapeutic applications, including as graft material to patch an ailing organ. It’s a fascinating, compelling technology, to be sure. But when media and the public first caught wind of it, they latched onto a misconception that the company was on the cusp of printing entire organs and eliminating transplant waiting lists.

We hope they do someday. But it’s going to take quite a while for the technology and science to progress, and for the healthcare system to adapt, before that outcome is a possibility. In the first six months after its IPO, Organovo’s stock price fluctuated wildly, leaping 750 percent then diving back down to Earth as investors see-sawed between dreams and reality. The lesson: When science gets dumbed down, messaging gets lost — and that has real, bottom-line consequences.

This is an ever-present risk in medicine because science-based healthcare is a new and rapidly changing development. In the new, data-driven medical environment, patients and doctors alike regularly encounter new ideas, treatments, and technologies, and they rarely have sufficient background knowledge to distinguish science from science fiction. Translational science can be an especially difficult conversation for lay audiences to jump into.

Audiences can, however, make smart decisions about complex topics if they’re given enough information through clear, on-point messaging. And that’s precisely where we come in as professional communicators.

Human stories are a common tongue

The upside of the transformation in healthcare is that science communication has been getting a lot more exciting. With all due respect to those who serve in basic research, life science and biotechnology companies get to deal with better stories. No longer dealing with the theoretical and the abstract, they’re able to talk about how tools or technologies directly affect the outcome of somebody dealing with a medical condition.

Those are powerful stories, and they aren’t all just about survival. In some cases, the story is about quality of life, or extending life, and it’s about people that may not have had that opportunity five or 10 years ago.

Bio-Rad Laboratories is in the thick of crossing over a technology to clinical practice — a research tool that in simplest terms counts DNA. Bio-Rad’s is not the only technology that does this, but it is especially good at doing it quickly. Researchers found a use for the instrument in pathology labs to identify specific tumor mutations that oncologists can treat with targeted medications.

Bio-Rad’s marketing campaign translates counting DNA into measuring moments. It emphasizes the speed of the technology and the impact it has on patients and doctors when genomic information is quickly available.

In a case like this, a human story acts as a bridge to the science. The more human, the more we can relate. The more we can relate, the more likely we are to understand the underlying science.

Finding bilingual balance

The trick is to balance those human stories, typically a long-term endeavor to develop, with short-term business priorities — the next fundraising opportunity, raising visibility for partnerships, managing milestones for a clinical development program, etc. Organovo righted its PR difficulties and lifted its brand by focusing on the short-term. The company found and declared its commercial path. It now positions itself as changing the shape of medical research and practice by accelerating discovery and lowering the cost of research. Though misconceptions unavoidably bubble up from time to time, that messaging has helped all stakeholders move together toward their common, closer-term goals.

Further solutions can be adapted from other industries. We see issues of managing hype around autonomous vehicles. The technology is available and in pilot, so the hype cycle immediately leaps over the major cultural, behavioral, infrastructure, and financial changes that would have to occur to introduce the technology at a consumer level.

In this case, misconception has proven to be an asset. Self-driving cars are far from mainstream, but Tesla, Google, Toyota and other car manufacturers have absorbed the public’s high expectations to fuel their development.

Every company’s individual situation is different, of course, but we are united by a reality that the confluence of science and healthcare is accelerating, and healthcare technology will continue to advance at an exponential rate. At the start of the millennium, transcribing a human’s complete genome cost an estimated $100 million. Now it can be done for about $1,000. Sequencing giant Illumina has plans to drive that down to $100, which would make the service accessible to virtually everyone.

As health and science communicators, we don’t know exactly where this shift in medicine will lead us. But we can appreciate our own responsibility to speak to both sides of this converging spectrum in ways that everyone with a stake in a technology’s future will understand.


Erik Clausen is Managing Partner at CG Life.