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Translating from Medicalese – Tips for Copywriters


by Abby Millager on 16 September 2016

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak your language very well? The person generally knows all the correct words for being polite. But after a number of false starts, the conversation gravitates where it must—to the topics covered in foreign language textbooks: the weather, your nationality, and food. Complex philosophical or technical discussions are simply an impossibility. And for an informal chat, that’s okay.

But what if you’re a healthcare specialist who is supposed to be providing the technical meat for some official communication? Whether the audience is the web-browsing parent of a critically ill child or a specialist colleague attending Kidney Week, if you’re talking to a medically unsophisticated copywriter, you’ve got a problem. Everything you say is going to have to trickle through the filter of: how can I say this so that he/she will understand?

Here are seven advantages to choosing a copywriter truly fluent in Medicalese:

1. It’s a kindness—subject matter experts won’t have to work as hard. Healthcare professionals are busy and stressed out as it is. Being allowed to speak their own language for the interview will make their day a little easier.

2. The copywriter will receive information in significantly greater detail than he or she would in translation. Once the doctor, nurse or other subject matter expert perceives that the copywriter is competent to understand whatever is said, they will not hold back when it comes to technical details. Whether or not this level of detail is required in the final communication, the copywriter is always better off knowing more.

3. The output will be in healthcare-speak, and therefore seem more authentic and reliable If the new copy will be aimed at professionals, any kind of dumbing down is completely counterproductive. In this case, the copywriter really must speak the language so as to be able to produce highly informative copy with the appropriate level of sophistication, and make it sound like a medical person wrote it. This kind of authority is nearly impossible to fake.

4. You will enable the most apt and complete lay explanations possible. Even if the new copy will be aimed at the lay public, having the healthcare professional deliver it pre-translated constitutes a missed opportunity. True, the subject matter expert likely has years of experience explaining this very subject to patients, and thus may well have a number of validly useful turns of phrase for getting the ideas across. But copywriters are professional communicators and, if required to, should be able to come up with at least an alternative way to explain the necessary concepts, and possibly even a more clear or more complete way to explain them. Force your copywriter to contribute these fresh ideas.

5. A medically well-versed copywriter will be better able to help you set the right professional tone. Walking the line between being too technical and too basic can be dicey. A copywriter more familiar with the medical environment will probably have a better sense of what constitutes a happy medium.

6. Healthcare professionals will feel time has been well spent and be more amenable to spending the time on similar conversations in the future. Once they see that this copywriter is easy to talk to, on the ball and can produce output that is respectable and doesn’t require hours of editing, your subject matter experts will be less reluctant to allocate time to talk to this copywriter for projects down the road.

7. The copywriter will spend less time looking stuff up. Often, as an adjunct to medical subject expert interviews, writers are provided with ancillary written matter—anything from medical journal articles to conference posters. The copywriter needs to be able to assimilate these extra bits of information and incorporate any relevant details into the copy. For these efforts, having a large medical vocabulary and fundamental understanding of medical topics will translate to less wasted time. This is important since copywriter time spent is money straight out of the MarCom budget.

Next time you’re looking to hire someone to represent your medical team, you might want to probe into the depth and breadth of the copywriter’s medical knowledge. There is a lot of variability on this score among so-called medical copywriters, and hiring someone with the highest degree of knowledge possible will help keep important information from being lost in translation.