Writing for patients is my favourite part of medical writing. I find it rewarding and fun. It is where my passion for medical writing started. I love the challenge of translating complex scientific and medical information into easy digestible content. It is a fine balance of simplifying whilst not patronising the reader. I always remember attending a training course about writing ethics applications in my early days in clinical trials. One of the key messages I took away from that training was that the average reading age in the UK is between 9 and 12 years of age.
I have always tried to apply that in my patient writing. Although it can be a real challenge when you have to explain a complicated drug mechanism of action or a rare genetic disease.
The drive for a shared care culture in healthcare is stronger than ever, so enabling people to make informed health decisions has never been more important. The ability to effectively engage and empower patients in their own healthcare has the potential to improve their treatment adherence, health outcomes and their quality of life.1,2 This creates a demand for better information for patients and the general public in the medical, pharmaceutical and healthcare sector. Plain language materials are essential tools to help patients translate and understand complex medical and health information.3
In England alone, just below half of working aged adults (aged 16-65 years) are unable to understand or make use of everyday health information.4 It is important to keep this in mind whilst developing content for the patient population and pitch it at the right level. Patient understanding can vary widely depending on their condition, severity and length of time since diagnosis. For example, a newly diagnosed cancer patient’s understanding of their health and medical information compared to someone with a life-long medical condition that requires frequent intervention is very different. Therefore, to gain insight on the level of understanding and specific terminology certain patient groups use, it can be helpful to access patient specific websites and forums.
There are many good practices around writing for patients, such as using simple words, cutting the jargon, using short sentences, increasing white space on the page, using graphics and using the active voice. However, knowing the rules and applying them takes a certain skill. Many health information producers feel they lack the skills to develop appropriate resources to meet the needs of people with low health literacy.5 It can be really easy to lose the key message, so always consider removing any information that may not be relevant to the patient.
Writing should be focused on what the patient really wants to know.
The majority of people access information about their health online and more than half of these people will be influenced by the information they find.6 Now more than ever, it is important that patients and the general public have access to unbiased, trustworthy information that is evidence-based. It is our job as medical writers to make sure that we produce health and medical information that is really what they need. So let’s make sure we talk the patients’ language.
- Vahdat, S. et al Iran Red Cres Med J. 2014; 16(1): e12454
- Chen, J et al Health Educ Behav 2016; 43(1): 25-34
- Warde, F. et al CMEJ 2018; 9(2): e52-e59
- Rowlands, G. et al Br J Gen Pract 2015: e379
- Health literacy survey 2013 https://pifonline.org.uk/resources/archive/health-literacy-survey-2013/ (accessed March 2022)
- Profiles of Health Information Seekers 2011. Available from: www.pewinternet.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/media/Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Health_2009.pdf (accessed March 2022)