Skip to main content


Why Word Choice Has Emotional Consequences in Your Healthcare Content

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou, poet and writer

I use the above quote when teaching clients about the best practices of effective web writing for healthcare. It’s a good gut check for expectation setting. And it underscores the importance of word choice in our content.

Healthcare content is crucial to users’ healthcare journeys. If it evokes feelings of compassion and expertise in the minds of users, they’re more likely to trust your organization with their care. That means your content is critical in drawing in users and setting the expectations they’ll have as they become patients. And the words you choose can make or break that experience for your users.

When you use the right words, you can elicit feelings of positivity, comfort and confidence in users’ minds. But when you use the wrong words, you can and will provoke feelings of negativity, distress and distrust. And even when the words fade from their minds, as Ms. Angelou noted, the feelings likely never will.

Let’s look at three key categories for word choice, as well as how your words within these categories can help or hinder the user experience.

Relatability and understanding

Although readability scores and being able to literally comprehend the content are important, what I’m referring to here hinges more on users feeling like you understand them. If your users don’t feel like you understand where they’re coming from and who they are as people, they’re less likely to trust your organization enough to make an appointment.

“Doctor,” “physician,” “provider” or “clinician”

Unfortunately, it’s common to have policies in place that promote less-relatable and less-understandable terminology due to internal politics. For example, as a “Beckers Physician Leadership” article noted, some organizations mandate the use of “physician” as opposed to more all-encompassing terms, such as “provider” or “clinician.”

Though well-meaning, this sort of policy isn’t in line with the way consumers talk. Consumers are less likely to use the complex word “physician” and are more likely to use “doctor.” We recommend “doctor” unless your organization has advance practice providers (APPs), such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who provide clinical care. In that case, it’s likely better to use “provider” or “clinician” — both of which also have well-established meanings by authorities within the healthcare space. (Also, in response to one particular objection: No, the term “provider” does not have any sort of Nazi connotation.)

“Kid” or “child”

A less contentious but still important example comes from pediatric healthcare content. We recently worked with a pediatric healthcare system on branding and messaging strategies. One of our options appealed to parents and guardians by talking to them about “your kid.” Our client liked the idea but worried about getting pushback from their leadership. When we asked why, they said there was a policy in place to always refer to their patients as “children” and never “kids.”

Context is important, but using the less-formal “kid” when appropriate can help foster feelings of comfort and familiarity. These are important considerations when appealing to a parent or guardian, who is likely to feel even more nervous and scared about their child’s care than they would be about their own. Using the more familiar “kid,” especially for community and local organizations, can engender feelings of camaraderie and friendship. For example, imagine a chance meeting between yourself and a neighbor. Are you more likely to ask them “How’s your kid doing?” or “How’s your child doing?”


People want to feel accepted for who they are. That’s even more important in the healthcare space, where a patient has to feel comfortable being honest with their provider about things that probably would be embarrassing to talk about in most polite company. But simple word choices can help you create a sense of inclusion and welcoming for your users.

“Their” or “his/her”

Pronouns are a great example of inclusive language choices. We’re seeing more organizations providing training on pronouns as part of a push toward diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Unfortunately, some organizations haven’t caught up with their writing guidelines, which can mean the old “his or her” or “his/her” still makes the rounds.

AP style is starting to come around to the singular “their,” and we’re seeing this term become the default in more places. If that’s a problem, it’s often possible to rephrase sentences to avoid the use of singular pronouns. For example, “The patient can talk to his or her doctor” could become “Patients can talk to their doctors.”

Really, though, the best possible option is to avoid potentially unwelcoming third-person pronouns is to avoid third-person pronouns altogether. Writing in second person — directly to “you” — means you’re building a more personal and deeper connection with the user and being inclusive at the same time. Whenever you’re writing, look for ways to avoid third-person references and use second-person ones instead.


Most healthcare organizations are moving toward being more intentionally inclusive. But there are some instances of gendered content that can make users feel excluded, such as:

  • Breast care and breast cancer content
  • Content about “women’s cancers” and “men’s cancers”
  • Gynecological content
  • Pregnancy content

These types of content can easily have gendered or unintentionally hurtful messages. For example, although women have a far higher prevalence of breast cancer than men, talking about breast cancer only in terms of how it affects women can exclude the nearly 3,000 men in the United States who are diagnosed with the disease each year.

For other conditions, considering how the content can affect trans people can avoid unnecessary exclusion. A trans man, for example, could need to see a gynecologist or could be pregnant. A trans woman may need a prostate exam. Though guidance on these situations continues to evolve, it’s better to use phrases like “people who are pregnant” or “people with a prostate,” rather than “women” or “men,” in these types of cases.

Writing with meaning

People aren’t reading most of our healthcare content for pure entertainment value. They’re scanning with a goal in mind — find a provider, make an appointment, etc. That goal usually means a conversion for your organization. So it’s in your best interest to facilitate their scanning, help them find what they want quickly and get out of their way.

Overly flowery language and technical jargon do the opposite of that. They force the user to slow down and search for context. They require the user to read more closely and put in more effort. And, for today’s time-crunched healthcare consumer, that’s often more effort than they’re willing to expend.

Be on the lookout for words and phrases like “multidisciplinary,” “innovative,” “state-of-the-art” and others of their ilk. If your terms are overspecialized or too far in the weeds of industry-speak, the user won’t feel acknowledged or catered to. And if the vocabulary is too cliché or overused, the user may feel like you’re not being specific enough in your value proposition for them to choose your organization.

Choose your words and your content partners carefully

Your content is often the best and last chance for you to influence a consumer’s decision about their healthcare. When you take the time to craft your message to fit their needs, your consumers will reward you with more conversions and continued loyalty.

If you’re not sure what types of words or phrasings will resonate with your audience, that’s OK. Ask them, and incorporate their responses into personalized, comprehensive personas. And, if you need help with creating the content, we work with clients across the country to drive conversions and create consumer loyalty through their content. Contact us to learn more about our comprehensive healthcare content solutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Michael Adkins, Senior Content Strategist, Digital Health Strategy

As part of Perficient's Digital Health Strategy team, Michael partners with healthcare organizations to create informative, conversion-centered content for a variety of applications, including websites and blogs. Michael writes content that highlights clients’ service-line offerings, expertise in unique treatments, differentiators in competitive markets and additional factors that are important to patients.

More from this Author

Follow Us