A TIME FOR HOPE:
How to communicate medical breakthroughs
Life sciences – encompassing pharmaceutical research, medical devices, medtech and agricultural advancements, among other areas – are said to be in the midst of a golden age. This weekend The Times featured the most exciting developments in these fields which reads like science fiction. Restoring sight to blind people, enabling physically disabled people to walk and cycle, womb transplants, and creating new drugs to slow diseases such as cancer and dementia.
And yet these breakthroughs present a conundrum for the communications professional. How do we publicise these exciting developments in a responsible way, without raising false hopes and disappointing people who are desperate for solutions?
There are legitimate moral and commercial reasons for publicising medical breakthroughs, even those in the early stages of research. Researchers need to attract investment in order to continue their important work, and the public has a rightful interest in new technologies and treatments that may impact their health and their wealth. Moreover, most research still has a public sector funding component, whether from government, the EU, universities or research charities. So it is common resources paying for it.
That said, communicating about medical research needs to be handled extremely carefully. Too often, well-meaning companies or journalists have mistakenly given the impression that a cure for an intractable disease is just around the corner. In truth, there is on average an eight to ten-year time period between identifying a promising molecule and having a drug ready for the market. And most developments do not pass the rigorous testing phases – in some fields of life sciences, less than one percent of early discoveries result in a marketable product.
Patient advocacy groups have a real interest in keeping their members aware of the latest breakthroughs. Well-informed patients are empowered patients. But a misleading headline can lead to disappointment and negative publicity for a research firm. Messages need to be very carefully crafted, to convey the exciting possibility of the research while also managing expectations.
And crucially, life sciences messages need to be simplified but never over-simplified. Explain the breakthrough in as straightforward terms as possible, but do not patronise readers. Crafting a public message that strikes the right balance between simplicity and accuracy, and between hope and pragmatism, takes practice, experience and skill. But getting the messaging right will pay dividends, attracting investment and support while letting scientists get on with their important research.