The Unwelcome Guest
The Unwelcome Guest

How healthcare can be less awkward online.


GAYLE approaches the front door with a notepad and pen. She shifts her weight nervously and rings the doorbell.


Gayle steps back to observe clues of habitancy. As she notes a light on through the window and car in the driveway, the front door flies open. JOHN appears in the doorway.

(in a monotone voice)
Oh, hello.
(voice shaking slightly)

Hi, my name is Gayle Stephenson. I’ve never been here before, but I was given this address to get some help. I just left the doctor with some worrying news and well, I know I have questions, but I don’t even know what they are. Can you please help me?

John looks at Gayle quizzically.

I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t know anything about you or your problems. But come inside, I have a few things you might be looking for.

Gayle follows John inside the home.


Gayle’s presence is dwarfed by the towering entry. There are multiple doors and staircases leading to different floors and rooms of the home.

John leads Gayle to a table. On it, there is a tall stack of papers.

Perhaps this is what you’re looking for?

Gayle fumbles for her glasses in her purse. She puts them on and peers over the massive set of information, scrolls of data in spreadsheet form.

I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at. I see names, addresses, dictionary terms. Could you personally help me find what I’m looking for?
I’m really not equipped to be able to do that. Everything you might need is right here, so please take your time to look it all over.

Gayle is becoming visibly frustrated. She was given this address by her doctor to learn more information about their discussion. She came straight here from the appointment and is scared, confused and tired.

(with exasperation)

Perhaps I can tell you more about myself. My name is Gayle Stephenson, I’m 57 years old. I was just told that I have a heart problem and I can barely spell the condition. My doctor said I needed to adjust my diet and maybe even begin medication. I might need surgery, but I can’t even process that right now.

John stares at Gayle blankly.

GAYLE (cont’d)
Do you know if this is hereditary? I have two daughters. Should they get checked? I’m just really concerned and need some reassurance.

John remains unfazed.

GAYLE (cont’d)
…Did you catch that? Sir?
I’m sorry, we don’t seem to have anything on this list for heart problem. But are you interested in learning more about female infertility?
No? Why would you ask me that? I just needed someone to listen. I’m sorry I wasted your time, but it doesn’t look like you have anything for me here.

Gayle turns for the front door. She is annoyed and disappointed.

Past the entryway on the second floor, we hear faint shouting for attention.

Gayle ….. Gayle!!!

The voice grows to a crowd, accompanied by pounding on the door.


With one ear pressed to the door, a tall woman in a white coat turns to address the room.

We couldn’t get through. She’s already left.

The camera pans to reveal an impossibly large space that continues until out of eyesight. We see numerous individuals in scrubs, a studio set with cameras and lights, stacks of books, medical equipment and chairs circled for a support group all filled with women who look just like Gayle.


Gayle exits the front door, heading for her car. On the walkway, she passes a young father holding a crying baby heading towards the house.




Ok everybody, cut! Now let’s talk.

This story is meant to make you feel a little uneasy. Nothing about the above exchange is natural or warm. It feels more like a strange dream than anything else. But I assure you, something exactly like this is happening to a concerned patient every day. So if you’re still reading and don’t actually want to option this film, let’s move on.

This “film” is a metaphor. Gayle is of course, Gayle. She is, as she said, a 57-year old woman who is desperately seeking more information on her arrhythmia.

The house, with its giant entryway, data directory and sprawling rooms, is a website. It’s the front door to HealthCare System X, and its where Gayle’s doctor suggested she visit to learn more.

But the problem, as you might have inferred from the awkward exchange, is that in no way is the experience structured to truly support Gayle. Instead, it mocks the humanity of the interaction she just had with her doctor.

John (Doe) is a façade. He’s a shallow attempt to promote an empathic experience that should ask “How can I help you, Gayle?” and actually do the legwork to return meaningful results.

For all of its strange Alice in Wonderland qualities, you might ask – who would ever structure their house this way? Well, a lot of people, actually. In the health care space, for one, visit five of the top brands, or local ones, that come to mind. It’s very likely that you’ll encounter this form of robotic, almost vain construction on first glance.


This architecture supports the brand’s own priorities or administrative makeup – not Gayle’s. It requires Gayle to orient herself and sleuth around for clues she might find relevant. She will be lucky to piece together anything of use, let alone feel supported or listened to.

The problem, of course, is that Gayle just left the gold standard of human connection. Her doctor listened to her, comforted her and looked her in the eye. He saw her break down in tears as she worried about her daughters. He knows that she could benefit greatly from hearing positive stories of other women like her.

What if, instead of sending Gayle to the front doorbell, he could direct her to a room that’s built to address her unique fears? One he personally designed? He could continue to support her even after she left.

While you may argue that no digital experience can truly match the caliber of human connection, so few health care brands are even trying to come close.

For many, their digital house is a necessary evil. With four walls, a roof and a floor, it will be updated maybe once a quarter. It was built by a contract web guy in 2012, who’s since moved on and lost all of the blueprints. And it’s managed by the intern who’s at least five weeks behind on everything else.

Some brands feel the solution is simply a new coat of paint. Or an entryway staffed by Robot John. But this is fake empathy built on an uneven foundation. As soon as Gayle, fraught with nerves and distress, is denied once – twice – six times the opportunity to find what she’s looking for, she will never come back. What’s worse, a poor digital experience can begin to erode the trust she has in the brand … and even her doctor.

If you acknowledge that you are building this experience to augment an incredibly precious physical one – that is, a relationship with a doctor – then you realize the importance of not looking at this as just a website. It’s true of any industry, but has particular complexity in healthcare. There is nothing more personal or intimate than your health. Constructing an empathetic digital experience requires very sophisticated behavioral thinking. It’s either the first or the last impression, so it better be good. - Peter Farrell, AM Chief Digital Officer

While every health care brand must understand the delicacy of continued emotional support, not all have the challenge of managing large quantities of digital content. Take a look at what you’re offering – beyond basic information, can you offer content that provides valuable emotional support? And moreover, can someone like Gayle find it?

On any scale, however, this project begins with cleaning up your cobwebs. Don’t ignore Gayle when she says heart problem because your search only recognizes cardiac care. Don’t present her with dead ends, irrelevant information, or stats she could have found more easily on WebMD. While these types of issues migrate lower on every marketing team’s priority list, don’t forget – they mean everything to someone who needs to feel supported.

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