4 Key Elements of a Healthcare Writing Program

Written communication with a prescription

Pop quiz: how many pills per day should you take if your prescription says, “Take 2 pills twice daily.” If you’re not sure if that’s a total of two pills per day or four pills per day, you’re not alone.*

In a recent study of adults from different backgrounds, nearly half misunderstood at least one out of five prescription labels. Those with low health literacy rates frequently misunderstood four out of five labels.

Poorly worded materials, or those written at a high reading level, can have disastrous–even deadly–effects on patients. The best way to fix the problem is for health systems and health departments to train public health professionals to write clearly.

Begin by incorporating these four areas into your training program:

1. Stop using medical terminology.

Make it a policy not to use terms like “renal” or “influenza” in communication with patients. They’re not clear and frequently misinterpreted.

2. Use a variety of communication methods.

If a patient can’t understand written communication, explain it out loud. If English is a problem, use an interpreter. Use illustrations when possible to reinforce important information.

3. Recognize cultural differences.

Straight-up dictionary translation is almost never enough, because languages and cultures have so much complexity. Train your staff on knowing and understanding the background of patients and also having access to experts, such as interpreters, to help explain.

4. Test, test, test.

Any time your staff creates a bulletin, flyer or anything else written, send it for review by peers, administration and especially readers from all backgrounds. Testing with readers does not have to be time-consuming or expensive, but their feedback will improve your communication skills.

Take the time to train your staff in how to communicate clearly, and you could save a life.

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*Correct answer: it’s a total of four pills per day.

[Photo credit:  incurable_hippie on Flickr]