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Tone and Voice of Healthcare Websites

Support your core brand propositions.

Reflect your organization’s personality in a coordinated way online and offline.

Our webinars are chock full of good information and our recent session Intermediate Writing for the Web was no exception. Several questions during the live session told us that understanding and developing the right tone and voice for hospital websites was an area where our attendees could benefit from further guidance.

What is tone and voice?

To understand different tone and voice choices, let’s look at coverage of a single topic area, breast cancer, from three different sites: University of Iowa Healthcare’s Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, WebMD, and Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Nebraska Hematology Oncology

When cancer is identified in the biopsy specimen, several other tests may be performed on the specimen in order to further classify the cancer and determine the optimal treatment strategy. Based on the stage of the cancer and the results of these tests, treatment of breast cancer is personalized for each individual. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and/or hormonal therapy.

Because this content uses the passive voice and doesn’t directly address the reader, its voice and tone sound detached. This passage feels clinical, like an entry in a medical textbook.


The first sign of breast cancer often is a breast lump or an abnormal mammogram. Breast cancer stages range from early, curable breast cancer to metastatic breast cancer, with a variety of breast cancer treatments. Male breast cancer is not uncommon and must be taken seriously.

WebMD uses more of a news magazine format and reports on the topic in an arms-length, impersonal manner. The page on which this content lives, however, links to a wide range of related content that is in a more personal-interest format and appears in an easily digestible slideshow. Content is in small chunks designed to make it quick to consume and to generate large numbers of pageviews on which advertising revenues depend.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America

At CTCA®, you have access to advanced diagnostic tools, such as genomic testing, and a wide range of treatments, including breast-conserving surgery, immunotherapy and new options that may be available through clinical trials. At the same time, our supportive care clinicians help you manage side effects to support your quality of life.

This selection uses a voice that is centered on the consumer and directly addresses the user. CTCA is unique among cancer specialty hospitals in that nearly all of its patients are self-referred rather than being referred by another physician. They are therefore very aggressive in their direct-to-consumer marketing, and the voice that they use in their writing follows right along with the messaging used in much of their marketing communications.

What’s the right tone and voice to use?

The right tone and voice for your organization is different than it will be for others. We received questions asking about the “right” tone and voice for a hospital website or if a hospital should use a first-person or third-person writing style (“we do the following” vs. “hospital x does the following.” ) The right answer should reflect your organization’s personality and brand as well as be used in a coordinated manner through both your online and offline communications.

The right tone and voice should support your core brand propositions. If you’re an academic medical center bursting with internationally recognized experts, then your tone should reflect that. If your organization takes a whole-body viewpoint, has created lots of “healing spaces” within the hospital and integrates holistic treatment options into care plans, your tone should be different.

While there’s no simple answer to what the right tone and voice is for your writing, here are a few considerations:

  • How will the tone on the web relate to the tone used in other marketing channels? These shouldn’t be identical, merely coordinated. For example, you’ll typically use a more casual voice for blogs and social media than for your annual report. Different documents, different purposes.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Will the tone you’re envisioning come across as authentic? Persuasive?
  • Mind your use of healthcare jargon. What’s a STEMI time, anyway?
  • Tone and voice go beyond the words. Decide not only if you’re going to talk about sick people in your text, but do you show sick people in the pictures? If so, what’s OK and what’s not?
  • Make your guidelines specific enough that multiple authors can write with a consistent voice, but keep them short enough that writers will actually read them and follow the directions.

I’ll leave you with one final thought – this stuff isn’t easy. Lots of people can write. Some of them can write well. Some of them can write well for healthcare. Some of them can write well for the web. It’s hard to find somebody who can do both. This is one of those areas where it’s worth getting some help to lay tone and voice out correctly up front. It will save you many headaches and rework in the future.

Ben Dillon

Chief Strategy Officer

Tone and Voice of Healthcare Websites