Healthcare ads: Should we use actual patients?

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

Colin Hung wrote a great post over on the Healthcare Leadership blog and shares a video, used as a TV commercial, that includes actual patients, according to Colin’s blog post.

Colin asks “How do you feel about using actual patients, families and doctors in healthcare advertising?” I have an opinion on that…

But first, here’s the video, which has had over half a million views on YouTube as of early November 2016. That’s a number not seen by many healthcare marketers.

The hospital even got earned media coverage from the commercial. Here’s that clip from CBC News:

When to use actual patients in ads?

In general, I usually lean toward using real people. Buying stock art of people to highlight something is dangerous for hospitals (and really any organization that works with people). Anyone – including competitors can buy that same stock image and use it. The same is true for using stock art image of physicians. “At which hospital does this physician work? The one I saw in the story on your blog.” Whoops.

For video, it’s no different. Sharing the actual stories of the actual people is stronger and truly authentic storytelling. The opposite, of course, is some writer making up some story that didn’t even happen and then portraying that through actors. And then we wonder when the actual experience offline later on is different for people.

Recommended reading:

Why we shouldn’t make up quotes for people in our stories, marketing pieces, etc.

HIPAA is not a reason to not share authentic stories

Digital storytelling at United Way in the early 2010s

Of course, we need to get permission and buy-in of the people whose stories we are sharing, but actual patients sharing their stories can help others in similar situations have hope, help an organization stand out and can even help the patients sharing their stories.

When  I was leading storytelling initiatives at a United Way from 2011 to 2014, we only used real people. Some received services and shared their stories of how the service helped them move their lives in the right direction. Others were donors who shared their stories of why they gave. Volunteers also shared what it meant to help with their time. We let them share their stories in their own words, because that’s more believable. In addition, I wouldn’t want people say offline that “oh yea, marketing wrote that for me. It didn’t quite happen like that.” (In writing, I do think it’s okay to clean up grammatical errors, but keep the meaning intact and don’t stray too far.)

My framework of authentic storytelling

The framework of authentic storytelling content marketing, looks like this:


Let me explain this here a bit:

The story happens

For any story to actually be shared as an authentic story, it first has to have happened. If I want to tell a great story about my weight loss, I first have to lose that weight. Certainly, I could tell an ongoing story chronicling the struggle with weight loss. Stories that don’t fit this framework, can still be great stories but likely are fiction. Fiction works great in movies, for example.

Recommended reading:

Check out my Fitness Blog here

How to actually get to 10,000 steps in a day

Context and key pieces

The best stories are shared within context. Sometimes it’s simple and doesn’t need much explanation. Parents can relate to sick children (even when they aren’t theirs). Context can also mean the overcoming or struggle with a difficult situation. The context here can be that “you aren’t alone. Others have made it through something similar.”

Then it’s important to determine that key pieces to share from a story. Not everything that actually happened is necessarily worth sharing. Some pieces slow down the story and can be omitted.

Then it’s important to document those key pieces and get them into the right format. It’s quite okay to use the same story on all relevant networks, but it needs to be formatted correctly for those networks. Tweets are different from Facebook posts or YouTube videos. All have their place for now.


The number of channels continues to increase and what channels are relevant changes. The image above gives you a good idea of the current state. And remember, just because personally we don’t use one channel or another that doesn’t mean our audience doesn’t.

Just a quick sampling of how content can be used and broken up:

  • Publish longer blog post on your website (500-1,500 words)
  • Repurpose soundbites as tweets
  • Post related images (with quotes to Instagram)
  • Include it in your email marketing
  • Tie it into an event, by having a related speaker, for example
  • Videos can be posted on YouTube, the website and also run as commercials


We can make our stories stand out by recognizing the unique stories, getting buy-in from those affected the most and have them help us share their stories in an authentic and meaningful way to them, the organization and our audience.

Two great examples of stories with actual patients:

Texas couple finds ways to honor son’s short live

Boston: Life after Heroin addiction

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