Hint #11 Health writing risks
MAGAZINE HEALTH WRITING BASIC 12 part – 10
Many articles you’ll be asked to write prescribe some course of action. You may suggest readers eat certain foods, practice certain exercises, or ask consider specific treatments or medications. I recommend not doing this lightly. Here’s why:
When health risks are involved in a medical treatment or method of prevention–and they often are–readers need to hear about them, and not just from the fine print or fast talk in advertisements. Not explaining the risks to readers can be risky business for writers. Health writers can mislead millions of readers by leaving this important information out.
In medicine, risk is a statistical concept–a story told in numbers rather than words. People’s perception of many risks is often based on anecdotal evidence and emotional factors not reflected in fact. They need explanations to help them understand the numbers, so they can gauge the likelihood of side effects to a treatment, the risk of exposure to an environmental hazard, the risk of continuing or quitting certain habits or behaviors.
When you’re writing about a drug, a screening technique, or anything with a side effect that could pose a risk, consider these seven suggestions:
- Try to present the risk in context. Show the big picture, so readers can see where the details fit.
- Explain what the clinical evidence really shows–whether it’s fact, or promising but still only educated opinion.
- Decide whether a risk needs emphasizing or de-emphasizing, taking into account possible overreactions.
- Distinguish between absolute and relative risk and show the difference in impact.
- Help readers weigh the risks against the benefits.
- Acknowledge and refute popular misconceptions.
- Whenever possible, include ways to reduce the risk.
Of course, your editors might edit out all you careful caveats. But at least you won’t insert something misleading. The point is that without the accurate reporting of risks, readers won’t have a chance of understanding health information in perspective. But if your articles help them balance the pros of treatments or therapies with the cons of possible complications, side effects, drug interactions or significant failure rates, your work will be safer for all concerned.
Happy Health Writing,
[See the full list of 12 hints here: 12 Hints for Magazine Health Writers]