Writing for Patients

Getting Big Ideas into Little Words

Writing healthcare and medical information for the masses is tough. Really tough. That’s why a lot of leaflets and websites end up coming across as either completely patronising or impossible to understand. So, where do you start? The simplest answer is by looking at who your main audience is. This is, I know, a shockingly basic sounding piece of advice; however, it is vitally important.

Working out who your main audience actually is, is determined by a range of factors such as age, gender and social classification. This information can get incredibly specific, but all you need is a general overview of the majority of your population. Try to focus on the age range that most people are in e.g. 35-44, what their main spoken language is e.g. English and which social classification they come under e.g. middle class. Once you know who you’re focusing on your task becomes easier; instead of trying to appeal to everyone (which is impossible) you can write to target a specific group. This can become especially helpful when it comes to deciding how much ‘medical jargon’ your patients can understand.

Abbreviations and shorthand are the bread and butter of the medical world, and mostly make perfect sense once they’ve been explained to you. However, when patients are using your website, abbreviations can become a barrier if patients can’t understand them.

Try to put yourself in the position of a patient. When they’re looking for healthcare information they’re probably feeling ill and a little bit worried. This is not the best mindset to be in when trying to work out what COPD means and what exactly they should be doing. So try to keep abbreviations and shorthand to a minimum by adding a full explanation when they are used for the first time on a page; for example COPD which alone could be confusing becomes COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) which is more informative.

Once you have a good idea of who you are writing for you’ll want to try and make your writing as gender neutral as possible. Medical writing tends to be written in a more feminine way, which is a good process of writing and many people respond well to it. However, this can be made much more inclusive for men by including a good mix of statistics and a car metaphor or two. As a grand generalisation, men typically respond better to facts and figures than they do to plain written text; so adding in a relevant statistic can help to improve their retention of important information.

The most important thing to remember when writing for patients is to keep your tone friendly and helpful rather than angry and annoyed. No-one likes being told off and aggressive sounding text instantly makes people defensive. Try to encourage the behaviour and outcomes you want by asking patients in a nice way. This increases the likelihood that they will act in a way which benefits you.

Top Tips to Remember

  • Work out who your target audience is and then write for them
  • Keep shorthand and abbreviations to a minimum, only using them if they are necessary and helpful.
  • Explain your abbreviations; just because you know what you mean doesn’t mean everybody else does.
  • Add a good mix of relevant and interesting facts and figures to your text; this will encourage both men and women to pay more attention to what you’re trying to say.
  • Keep your tone friendly and helpful throughout your text; aggressive sounding text will make people defensive. Remember you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!