It’s difficult to imagine a world without healthcare communications. Commercials, TV advertisements, articles featured in newspapers and journals, or brochures found at your local GP’s – the impact of Med Comms is undeniably strong nowadays, but this wasn’t always the case.
For the past 40 years, the Med Comms field has experienced its most dramatic growth yet, raising awareness on issues that long needed to be covered, reaching millions of people around the world1. So, how was life before Med Comms and what exactly did it take for the field to become the powerhouse (no, not of the cell) that it is today?
A trip back in time
Thousands of years ago, medical knowledge was passed down to generations in a very different way to what we’re used to seeing today. Papyrus scrolls, clay tablets and stone engravings were used by the ancient Egyptians to keep records of diseases and their respective cures, ensuring that the information would be kept intact for many generations to come2. This method proved so efficient, that treatments for some of the common ailments of today find their roots in the papyri of ancient Egypt, where the use of various plants, animal products or minerals was described2.
Several centuries later, the casebooks of astrologists, Simon Foreman and Richard Napier, shed light onto some 80,000 patient cases, providing brief descriptions of the patients’ ailments, their relatives and other relevant information of the time (as well as astrological predictions). While the casebooks weren’t necessarily the first of their kind, they did encompass the medical history of patients over the course of 40 years, making them an important artefact of history in the eyes of patient case studies3.
Several hundreds of years later, electricity-powered communications continued to make breakthroughs in society – first, with the invention of the telegraph and the Morse code, and later with the invention of the telephone in the late 19th century4. Amongst the first to embrace the new technologic discoveries were the medical practitioners of the time, pushing society forward in the quest to make medical communications more accessible to everyone4.
The invention of the radio and television, marking the early to mid-20th century, propelled healthcare communications forward, as marketing strategies of the medical field turned towards TV spots and health magazine features aimed at various target audiences4. Crossing into the second half of the 20th century, medical practitioners began to search for a better way to store patient records, aiming to create documents that would help in decision-making, as compared to simply recording diagnoses4.
From medical care to advertising, marketing and wellness
The 1970s marked an important decade amongst healthcare practitioners of the time. By then, communications between pharmaceutical companies and medical staff were solely achieved through public relations experts, tasked with breaching the barrier from bench to bedside, spreading awareness on the approval of new drugs and their promised benefits1. It is during this decade that medical practitioners look down on medical advertising, considering the field to be beneath their professional standards1.
The 1980s and 1990s see a change in this attitude, as women’s healthcare becomes a profitable venture for both hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry, under the introduction of Medicare. The prospective payment system plunged hospitals into medical advertising, attracting millions who wanted to reap the benefits of the new reimbursement system1. Fast forward several decades later, and advertising remains an integral part of the marketing budget in every hospital today1.
The growth of Med Comms is mirrored by media outlets, as designated health reporters begin covering news on health and wellness. Amongst the big headlines of the time are the announcement on the war on cancer by President Nixon in the 1970s, to the first heart transplant in the 1980s or the mapping of the human genome in the 1990s1.
Perhaps one of the most notable health campaigns of the time was 1995’s Bladder Health Week, allowing for public education on urinary incontinence to be more easily accessible1. The de-stigmatisation of many other illnesses and diseases follows, including irritable bowel syndrome or colon cancer1.
Wellness becomes the main interest of the baby boomer generation in the 1970s, as many young adults of the time embraced a healthy and active lifestyle. In the 1980s the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smoke-Out campaign took off. Many hospitals in the country began offering smoking cessation programs, alongside nutrition and stress management classes, as a result1.
Sick care becomes well care, as the early 2000s healthcare campaigns made patients aware of preventative options, as opposed to treatment, for a better overall prognosis in patient health. Social media continues to fuel this initiative, as vitamins and nutritional supplements demand increases, alongside wellness forums and blog posts. Perhaps the most successful platform remains WebMD, receiving over 17.1 million views by 2007, only 8 years after its launch in 19991.
Patient advocacy stems from the overall growth of the healthcare communications sector, as campaigns for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) begin. The 1980s and 1990s see the stigma of diagnosis develop into a death sentence, as investment in effective treatments falls short. The media coverage of a student becoming infected with HIV from contaminated blood treatments in 1984 sparked outroar, as many teachers and parents opposed the student’s return to school1. A legal battle with the school system began, as media coverage propelled the issue into public attention, featuring celebrities such as Elton John and Michael Jackson taking a stance against AIDS, and pushing for better treatment1.
Named in honour of the student, the Ryan White CARE Act became a major part of AIDS legislation in the United States, whilst Ryan White Programs remain the largest providers of services for people living with HIV/AIDS today. Currently, HIV is managed as a chronic condition, and a no longer a death sentence, as combination antiretroviral therapy became more whitespread1.
Breast cancer followed a similar trajectory to HIV/AIDS, claiming the lives of over half a million women each year in the US alone at the time. The disease didn’t benefit from coverage on its devastating impact, prompting Nancy Brinker to create the Komen Foundation in 1982.
By 2009, The Komen Foundation raised over $1.5 billion for the education and research on breast cancer, as the pink ribbon becomes the staple mark for supporters worldwide. Today, October marks breast cancer awareness month, prompting millions of women to seek breast exams each year.
From the humble beginnings of ancient civilisations to the invention of the telephone and the internet, the Med Comms field has expanded to become an integral part of our lives today. As every generation continued to adapt and overcome the challenges of their time, every decade of the past is marked by one or several healthcare campaigns that changed the medical field forever. Many issues continue to challenge our present and future, however, the sustained effort of medical communications over the years continues to bring pharmaceutical companies and medical experts closer to finding solutions… and solving problems.
Take a step forward and share the initiatives that make you proud to be part of Med Comms!
1. Hicks, N. J. & Mazzola Nicols, C. Health Industry Communication. in Jones & Barlett Learning vol. 1 1–11 (2015).
2. Metwaly, A. M. et al. Traditional ancient Egyptian medicine: A review. Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences vol. 28 5823–5832 (2021).
3. Kassell, L. Casebooks in early modern England: Medicine, astrology, and written records. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 88, 595–625 (2014).
4. Telemedicine, I. of M. (US) C. on E. C. A. of & Field, M. J. Evolution and Current Applications of Telemedicine. (1996).