Healthcare Writing

Colleen Shannon, Freelance Medical Writer

Patient information

Rules for writing patient information

When someone is sick or hurt, they’re scared. They don’t know what will happen next but they probably have some terrible ideas about the possibilities. That’s why good patient information should build confidence as well as knowledge. Follow these rules to get that balance just right.

1. Know their concerns. Learn about your audience. Find out what they care about, what they worry about, and what they want to know. Talk to people with firsthand experience, and check the research literature. Healthtalk Online is a great resource for this.

2. Be kind. Start gently. Choose your words carefully. Acknowledge some of the feelings your audience may be having. Encourage them to get one-to-one support and explain where to find it. The Helplines Partnership has comprehensive listings.

3. Be honest. You have to tell the truth but take your audience there one step at a time, without overwhelming them. Let them know there is sad news coming up and give them a chance to look away if they want to.

4. Be accurate. People are trusting you, so take the utmost care with your facts. Before you get too far into your desk research, start by talking to some experts. This saves a lot of time and gives you focus. If you are an expert yourself, then talk to your peers. You will always learn something and it’s useful to challenge your assumptions. The Science Media Centre can put you in touch.

5. Be fair. You know the old saying that medicine is both an art and a science. Sometimes I think this just means ‘it’s messy’. Often, there is disagreement among the experts. Maybe you disagree with the experts. The evidence may be incomplete, conflicting, or proven wrong sometime in the future. People deserve to know about these issues when they are making decisions about their health. By all means keep it simple and clear but where there is uncertainty, say so.

6. Make it easy. Health information must be digestible. Don’t heap everything on one big plate. Instead, serve small bites on elegant little dishes. Use shorter words. Use images. Present information in chunks, one idea at a time. For many people, this buffet will be enough. Others will be hungry for more, and you can offer them the additional option of deeper detail or send them to other reliable sources.

7. Offer hope. When you’re writing health information, it’s easy to end up with pages and pages of misery. But we all need hope and motivation. If you’re talking about prevention, don’t forget to mention that people will feel great when they follow your advice. If there is a cure for the condition you are writing about, or most people recover, explain this. Even if the outlook is not good, your information can offer ways to feel better.