Follow the plain-language path to reach patients and other health care consumers
You've probably heard of plain language. It's a movement for clear, simple English with the goal of making complex information easy to understand and act on.
Plain language is essential for your patients and their families, as well as the "worried well" health care consumers. Why is plain language so important? Because most health communications ask readers to do something: wash their hands thoroughly, fill out a form or take medicine on time. Using medical terms or literary English can keep them from performing these tasks correctly -- or at all.
Recently, a client asked me to rewrite a patient information form. The word "subscriber," meaning insurance policy holder, was confusing some patients, and front desk staff were spending valuable time explaining what this insurance industry term means. I suggested "person who has the policy" instead.
Writing plainly might mean using more words. For example, doctors write or say "n.p.o.," for the Latin words "nil per os," meaning "nothing by mouth." But if you tell a patient, "Be n.p.o. after midnight before surgery," she won't understand unless she has a health care background (or reads The Merck Manual obsessively, perhaps). If she eats breakfast, her surgery will have to be rescheduled. On the other hand, if you use medical jargon in English and tell her, "Nothing by mouth," she won't know it's OK to take her heart medicine with a sip of water, and she might be at risk during surgery.
A good plain-language option? "Don't eat or drink anything after midnight the night before your surgery. In the morning, do not eat or drink unless your doctor tells you it is OK to take your regular medicines. You may take these medicines with a sip of water."
Yes, that takes more words, but it ensures your patient gets instructions she can follow. Using plain language keeps patients and health care professionals safer.
Learn more about plain language from the Plain Language Association International.
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