3 Min Read | Strategy

The key to a successful medtech communication strategy? Show them the robot, but never let them see the elephant.

In the mid-19th century, elephants were something most Americans had heard quite a bit about, but few had actually seen one.

The animal’s reputation as powerful, exotic, and a bit frightening made it shorthand for all these qualities, and the expression “to see the elephant” began working its way into popular American slang.

The popularity of the phrase, a stand-in for experiencing something firsthand, grew exponentially by midcentury as would-be millionaires trekked to the California gold fields in search of riches and adventure. Most discovered too little of the former and too much of the latter, declaring upon their return home they had seen the elephant and had no desire to see it again.

What does any of this have to do with contemporary ways of discussing the latest innovations in medical technology? Because in the B2C realm, and sometimes even with B2B audiences, today’s cutting edge medtech is much like an elephant in nineteenth century America: undeniably powerful, tantalizingly exotic, and vaguely frightening.


Fear of AI and healthcare

This is especially true for medical devices that utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning. People have heard quite a bit about AI-driven devices, but most haven’t seen one. The result is patients who fear learning about today’s connected, AI-powered, and rapidly evolving medtech through firsthand experience.

You would be forgiven for thinking the United States, with its history of medtech innovation and widespread access to the latest technologies, would have a population ready to embrace the promise of AI in medtech. To a certain extent this is true. A Pew Research survey shows 40% of Americans think the use of AI in healthcare will reduce the number of medical mistakes, while only 27% think it will increase medical errors.

But when it comes to their own treatment, six in ten people told Pew they would be uncomfortable if AI were part of their care. There are similar concerns in the UK, where 56% of people in another survey responded they don’t trust the National Health Service to use AI, even if would help them get their health results faster. And in the EU, only 25% of people trust a fully AI system to monitor their health. When it comes to AI and their own healthcare, a majority of people don’t want to see the elephant.

And we shouldn’t expect AI-powered medtech to become more accepted just because it becomes more widespread. After all, vaccines are nearly universal, but recent developments have taught us ubiquity does not always equal trust.

Instead, we need content about AI-powered medtech that can make audiences more comfortable with new developments. Fortunately, creating this content may be simpler that you think.

A recent internal study by a medtech device company that supplies hospitals with robot arms for surgery found, perhaps unsurprisingly, surgical patients were extremely nervous about having an AI-powered robot assist their human surgeon. However, simply showing the robotic arm to patients before their surgery significantly decreased their anxiety.

Essentially, the most effective content about new medtech does not focus on the general impressiveness of AI-powered devices. We don’t even necessarily need content that explains how AI contributes to the success of individual medical technologies. There is already significant buzz about the promise of AI, in much the same way the size and impressiveness of the elephant was well known 175 years ago.


Explaining AI; reassuring patients

Instead, we need content that shows people the robot. We need to take something that is exciting but also a bit frightening and make it familiar. This can sometimes mean explaining the technical aspects of a device, but more frequently it will involve showing how the medtech is just a logical extension of the familiar in the way that a robotic arm is just a new type of assistant for a surgeon.

That means there is room in medtech content to move away from focusing on the innovative, the remarkable, and the exotic. While AI-powered devices may be all these things, content that instead emphasizes the familiar and utilitarian nature of medtech is the key to B2C content that works.