What healthcare PR taught me about life, love and everything in between

Written by
Trecia Tan
Consultant and Team Leader

At the end of my internship with a PR agency in 2015, I made it known to the management that I was interested in joining them full time once I completed my studies. I was given the choice between joining the firm’s corporate or healthcare practice. As a young PR graduate with not much knowledge of the intricacies and differences between the two, I took the easy way out by deciding not to decide and answered, “I’m fine with either”.

As luck would have it, I ended up being assigned to healthcare, a non-decision that has ultimately shaped my career and who I am as a communications consultant today. Five years and a dozen healthcare clients on, here are some of the most fascinating life lessons from healthcare PR that I have picked up along the way.

The Challenges Faced

One of the most eye-opening discoveries for me is that the work in healthcare PR can be much more fastidious compared to others. In no other industry would one be bombarded by confusing medical jargons, limited by a highly regulated environment, and frustrated by the need to include academic citations for every factual statement, such as those in MLA format – not so fun for someone who thought she had left university life and with that, all forms of academic citations behind her.

Back then, I remember how something as simple as finding the right medical journal – and without a paywall – could bring me as much joy as watching a cute puppy video. You might think that I am exaggerating, but it is not always easy to find the exact references to support the claims made in your press materials, especially when they have to be almost verbatim with not much leeway for paraphrasing to suit your writing style or content flow.

The red tape commonly found in pharmaceutical clients, due to the highly regulated environment they operate in, can often feel like a brick wall. When clients in other sectors only need to go through one to two layers of approval, a healthcare client requires a four to five-step process which typically involves medicolegal overviews. On top of that, in certain situations, you are also required to manually hand deliver physical copies of your press materials and marketing collaterals to the Malaysian Medicine Advertisements Board (MAB) for approval. This is before you can publish, promote, or distribute them to any public channels – adding days if not weeks to our plans and campaigns.

The Practical Skills Gained

Aside from learning the art of patience and planning months ahead, healthcare PR has also informed my approach as a consultant across my other work. When it comes to medical or health-related stories, it is crucial that we do away with the fluff and only share substantial information that is useful to the targeted audience. To get there, we would need to simplify jargon and translate them to layman’s terms. This skill is highly advantageous for a communications consultant, in the most crucial aspects of your job.

This pragmatic ability to grasp complicated subject matters and make them easily understandable to the masses has refined my writing skills for a wide variety of my clients. Now, I can go from describing how immunotherapy works for cancer patients to articulating complicated theories around machine learning to B2B audiences with great ease.

The Love and Lessons Learnt

We oftentimes highlight people’s voices to provide our target audience with real-world examples and stories that they could connect with. In healthcare PR, those voices become more personal and emotionally driven. That is because in healthcare, your client’s product directly impacts a person’s quality of life and wellbeing, and it could also very well help save their lives.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with many patients and hear their stories. At one point, I was even tasked to develop a patient testimonial video for a client’s cancer treatment. Sitting next to the patient in the comfort of her own home, I started asking her deeply personal questions about her cancer journey and in doing so, brought up painful memories that led her to tear up as she recounted the greatest battle for her life. I could not even reach out to console her because the camera was still rolling, and I needed to remain unheard and unseen on the screen. While experiences like this one can weigh heavy on the heart, they have also helped to strengthen my empathy and compassion for patients and survivors. I also often find inspiration in their stories.

My work has also allowed me to witness how family and loved ones show unconditional love and support, and in turn provide patients with the strength they need to keep going. One of the heartwarming stories I will always remember was told by the husband of a breast cancer survivor who stayed true to the “in sickness and in health” part of his vows. He likened the journey of battling cancer as a married couple to sailing across a vast ocean – even if a giant storm caused the ship’s engine to stall, the right course of action is to work together to repair it and continue their journey ahead, instead of abandoning ship at the first sign of trouble. It is stories like these that fill my heart with immense joy, love, and hope.

While I eventually branched out beyond healthcare PR, that niche practice I started out in had an undeniable influence on my views and approaches to both my work and life in general. The foundation I have built through this practice has instilled in me the habit of fact checking documents and having a higher level of patience for bureaucracy. The people whose paths I have crossed and stories I have heard is the reason I never take the life, health, and love I have for granted. For that, I am grateful that my indecisiveness in choosing a PR practice five years ago had led me down the path it did.

Written by
Trecia Tan
Consultant and Team Leader