Creativity in Healthcare

The title seems like an oxymoron, yet creativity can live in the regulated land of healthcare. The challenges are significant and inherent in the culture of the industry.

FDA regulation puts many restrictions on what you can say about healthcare products. Off-label claims, or claims of efficacy prior to approval are forbidden and communicators traverse this landscape with the caution of an explorer avoiding grenades in unfriendly territory. Both pharma and device companies have incurred fines or worse from the government for marketing offenses in this arena.

The journey to a winning program must by necessity bypass a lot of ideas that would not cut regulatory muster. In brainstorms, healthcare folks must look like Debbie Downers to our non-health colleagues. And sometimes they are right. It is possible that the lens we look through can cloud new paths to innovation. Our challenge is to not let what we know of the risk-laden healthcare world obstruct new ideas that just might work.

The first step in overcoming the confines of that world is to understand it. Know the beast you would seek to tame. Healthcare companies are conservative and deeply risk-averse. While this is true for many non-healthcare companies, the “product” of health raises special sensitivities. It is deeply personal for consumers carrying life and death implications. For healthcare professionals, there is the elevated mission of saving or improving peoples’ lives and an overlay of ethical concerns that goes with that.

Communications in this world take on its own imperatives: avoid trivialization, don’t make exaggerated claims, and anchor those claims with facts and data. A world of evidence-based medicine demands evidence-based pr. Vocabularies are altered to reflect the boundaries of over-promise. Superlatives – biggest, best – are rarely used, and for many years the word “cure” was banned from any association with cancer.

Similarly, language that meanders toward “cute” is usually avoided; nothing cute about occluded arteries or a host of other conditions. This can be restrictive in creating memorable taglines, but the culture of healthcare leans toward “serious.”

While healthcare companies including providers are eager to be first in scientific or clinical innovation, this drive to be first often stops at the communications door.  A health system CEO who wanted to be positioned as an industry leader, asked when looking at a communications initiative, “Is Hopkins doing this?”  If they were, he felt it was safe to go forward. This kind of litmus test belongs in the “me, too” file of creativity, and it is not uncommon in an industry that has a pack mentality of “follow the leader.”

In this environment, asking healthcare communicators to achieve “break through creativity” is like asking us to look glamorous in army fatigues. Yet we manage some astounding feats of creativity while still “coloring within the lines.”

As Amy McCarthy, head of Ketchum’s New York healthcare practice, has noted, we come up with creative solutions that our clients can actually execute. This is not inconsequential in the world of healthcare. Creativity that “works” and achieves business results is what drives our programming.

Cracking the creativity code in healthcare is not that much different from other industries, despite the constrictions that we work within.  The verb “create” implies something new, unexpected, perceptions changed. Here is one example of creativity at work in healthcare:

Novartis – The Enablex “Where to Stop, Where to Go” campaign is always cited as an example of creativity in a regulated space. The challenge was huge – create excitement for a sixth to market drug for overactive bladder (OAB) and to reach consumers on an issue shrouded in shame and secrecy. The break through here was understanding OAB consumers and what was important to them. Research revealed that they liked to travel but were often held back by their condition and the practical impediments of accessing public bathrooms.

The Ketchum team developed a campaign “Where to Stop, Where to Go” that featured a guide to clean, accessible public bathrooms in the U.S. Travel guru, Arthur Frommer, was part of this campaign that gained widespread attention beyond the healthcare industry. The results were spectacular for Novartis, and the campaign was named PR Week’s best healthcare program of the year.

There are many other examples of creativity in healthcare with Ketchum professionals breaking new ground every day. Whether it is helping our clients forge new paths in the digital world, or raising awareness of a health condition, professionals in healthcare have learned to harness creativity while walking the tightrope of regulation.

This post first appeared on the Holmes Creativity Platform.  For more thought leadership from Ketchum on creativity, please visit