Healthcare comms has the power to call out the charlatans

Mar 13, 2017 | By Sarah Winstone | Posted in NHS

When people are manipulating the truth for political ends, healthcare communicators must debunk the myths and call out the charlatans, writes Sarah Winstone.


During last year’s US presidential election debates, live fact-checking became the norm as the candidates made their bids to the nation. Could future years see live brain-scanning, helping voters tell whether they’re being fobbed off with ‘alternative facts’? It sounds like science fiction, but, by measuring changes in blood flow, scientists are creating images that pinpoint the bits of our brains controlling how we think, speak and move.

Scans can tell us about the functional – building maps to guide surgeons around essential brain structures when excising a tumour, for example, or spotting the subtle changes that happen before someone shows the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s – but they can also expose emotions. Different parts of our brains light up when we make ‘cold’, pragmatic decisions (you suggest to your client the safe, business-as-usual PR programme) or ‘hot’, risky ones (you pitch the out-of-the-box idea that could lose you the account or win a host of industry awards).

Neuromarketers believe scans may be able to predict consumer behaviour. Scans can also detect whether we’re telling the truth, repeating a rehearsed lie or ‘busking it’. For now, would-be political leaders can take some comfort that the system seems to trip only if you’re aware that your pants are on fire.

In the meantime, how do we sort truth from lies, and what is the role for health communicators? After all, we’re used to hype. We see it in headlines screaming ‘wonder drug’ when trials are in their infancy, promotion of the new ‘superfood’ or the way campaigners seek a crisis or scandal around every corner.

When outliers’ opinions are promoted in the face of scientific evidence, supposedly in the interest of ‘balance’, it matters. It is not free speech to allow individuals with nothing more than an online certificate to debate the science. Fake experts and fake health news have real effects on healthcare policy, in both the US and the UK. We are living the consequences of what happens when truth is manipulated for political ends.

With the media under siege, it’s time for healthcare communicators to redouble our efforts to debunk myths and call out the charlatans. We’ve been schooled in the scientific method. We know how to unpick statistics to find the real story.

There will be furious debates about what Brexit will mean for our life sciences and health services. Would a closer relationship with the US give private companies a toehold in the NHS, for example? How will we afford innovations with the potential to change patients’ lives? Or should we charge so-called health tourists upfront, regardless of ethics or practicality?

Healthcare communicators cannot afford to be distracted. We must identify the breadcrumb trails through the vaguest of parliamentary answers and driest of policy documents to get to the heart of what’s really happening – to NHS funding, safety, waiting times and social care. We must find the personal experiences that expose the reality of pressures on frontline services, while refuting the insidious message that the NHS is irredeemably broken. The truth will out. 

This article also appears in PR Week

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