How to write better patient information – for nurses and other health professionals

Learning how to write better patient information should not be part of a nurse’s remit. Much patient information is generic and can be written centrally, so should not be a nurse’s concern. But when an individual hospital needs to share some of its own, specific information with patients, 9 times out of 10 it falls to the nurses in that department to write it out for patients to read.

HTWB nurse

When you’re writing for patients, try to do a bit of role play; put yourself in the patient or carer’s shoes for a few minutes.

Even though a lot of patient information can be covered by generic sources of leaflets and handouts, every hospital – in the UK, anyway – does things differently. That’s when and where bespoke patient information has to be written: to explain procedures, activities, processes and more.

Here is some help with how nursing professionals can meet this need.

Shocking: even at Masters level, nurses get no tuition on how to write patient information

In my own experience of 9 years’ voluntary work in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital in the UK, I have seen the task of writing this patient information repeatedly fall to a senior nurse or nurses in the department or discipline concerned.

At our local hospital many of the nurses know me and know they can call on me to help them with writing, drafting and/or editing their written information; and considering ours is only a modest District General Hospital with a mere 500 beds, I get asked to help out with this all too frequently.

So here, now, are some pointers for nurses everywhere in the UK – and other countries, I’m sure – to help you when you’re asked to explain something in writing to the patients in your organisations’ care.

Writing better patient information is about what you need to achieve, not what you say

This may seem obvious, but make sure you’re clear about the purpose of whatever you’re writing. Don’t think “what do I want to say;” start by thinking “what does this document have to achieve,” and work backwards from there.

Let’s say you’re writing a leaflet to be used in the Breast Unit explaining the way appointments work and why there are sometimes delays between imaging and seeing the ANP or consultant.

If you think in terms of “what do I want to say,” it probably will come out as “tell patients that there may be a wait between imaging and seeing the ANP or consultant and that’s unavoidable, so please go for a coffee in the restaurant … etc.”

If you think in terms of “what does this leaflet need to achieve,” you get a different slant: “we need to warn patients that there may be a delay and that can’t be helped, but we can reassure and calm them and help them relax a bit by going for a coffee….etc.”

What’s key is to “get inside patients’ heads”

Of course you know how patients are likely to feel when asked to read information you produce. However part of your training, as I understand it, is to be informed and sympathetic but not to take stuff on board personally.

However when you’re writing for patients, try to do a bit of role play; put yourself in the patient or carer’s shoes for a few minutes.

Or, think back to a time – perhaps before you became a nurse – when you or a loved one was a patient in hospital, and how you or they felt. Did the stress of the “white coat syndrome” make you or your loved one find it harder to concentrate on reading information? Did all these medical terms and jargon just make the whole experience worse?

If you can truly visualize how patients and carers will be feeling when they read your written information, you’ll understand better not just what you need to achieve with the writing, but also how to achieve it. You’ll feel the fear factors and triggers, and that makes you write more sympathetically.

Always, always talk to “you”

Often in medical or other professional writing it is considered more formal and dignified to refer to patients and carers in the third person. That’s fine if the text is not going to be read by patients and carers. If it’s used for information that patients and carers have to read, it’s not fine. Not at all.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s kind of insulting to expect patients to read a lot of unfamiliar text and only be referred to as “the patient.” What about me? Don’t I matter, doctor? Nurse?

The quickest way to engage your reader – whatever you’re writing – is to address “you” and make sure that “you” is prominent throughout. Particularly with patient information when your readers are likely to be frightened, stressed and possibly unwell too, making them feel that you’re writing directly to them rather than some stuffed dummy called “the patient,” is very important.

Always write informally, though you don’t want to be too chatty

Another benefit of writing directly to “you” is that it is much more informal and friendly. No matter how complex or technical the procedure or activity you’re writing about, always simplify it so that the lay person can understand it.

You don’t have to be too informal and chatty: patients appreciate informality to make them feel at ease, but they won’t be comforted by back-slapping joviality. Once again, think of a time when a loved one was in hospital and something needed to be explained to him or her: simple wording, yes; a “me-to-you” tone of voice, yes; too much familiarity, no.

Patient information must not include medical jargon, no matter what

Never mind how many times people have watched a TV drama when someone gets a CAT scan or an MRI, when they’re in the hospital in stressful circumstances it still sounds threatening.

Plus, because they’re stressed they may well not absorb explanations of jargon the first time they’re told – so you need to be kind and gently remind them.

In fact because patients and their carers are often quite confused and bewildered when in a hospital environment, it’s well worth pulling out in big, bold type sections of text where a specific procedure is described, albeit in simple terms. This way readers know that they are important sections and can find them easily to re-read.

Don’t worry too much about formal grammar

Although you need to make sure your spelling, syntax, punctuation and basic grammar are all OK, don’t sweat about starting sentences with “and” or “but.” Keep your sentences reasonably short and snappy. Use active words and phrasing – not passive (e.g. “everyone had a good time,” not “a good time was had by everyone.”) Use the shortest possible words (e.g. “use,” not “utilize.”)

Use the “So What?” test … if you have just written a long sentence, look back at it and ask yourself “so what?” Often you’ll find you can come up with a simpler, more powerful sentence that states plainly what you were trying to state in the longer version.

Imagine you’re explaining this patient information to your Auntie

We have to assume here that Auntie isn’t a doctor or a nurse! Imagine that you’re sitting down with her at her kitchen table, having a cup of tea, and explaining to her how whatever you need to write about works. Then write that down.

If you can’t imagine it and write it down directly, get hold of a recording device of some sort and role play it: that spot on the wall is your Auntie, so tell her how it works. Then transcribe what you have said, tidy it up, and it will work as good patient information.

And don’t worry if it sounds, or reads like, an over-simplification of the process or procedure concerned. To your professional ears and eyes, it certainly is. But to an unwell and possibly rather frightened patient and his/her carers and family, it will be just about right.

An example of how to write better patient information…

Here is a brief example of how a relatively “medical-speak” piece of information can be translated into simple English that the average patient can understand…

Original: Intravenous Therapy (IV)
Many patients in the medical and surgical wards will have some form of Intravenous Therapy (IV). This can range from an intravenous infusion with or without an infusion pump, intravenous cannula with an injection port, through to a central venous line.
This therapy provides a direct route to the bloodstream which allows for hydration, administration of blood or blood products and administration of medications.
Medications that are administered intravenously bypass the normal means of absorption associated with oral, topical, rectal, sub cutaneous or intra muscular administration.
Therefore, drugs administered intravenously achieve therapeutic level very rapidly and frequently a lower dose is required.

Your version: Intravenous Therapy (IV) – getting your medicine fast
Now that you’re in hospital, you may need to have medicine, fluids to keep you hydrated and other important things given to you through a tiny tube into a vein – usually in your arm. This is a very quick way to make sure you get the treatment you need fast; a lot faster than if you take the medicine in pill form, or drink it from a glass, because it bypasses your digestive and other systems and goes straight into your bloodstream.
If you are due to have this kind of therapy, we’ll need to put some simple equipment into your body to make it happen. Usually this will be a device called a “cannula,” which sits in a vein in your hand or arm. Sometimes, too, we may need to give you a more powerful device; if you need one of these we may need you to have a short local or general anaesthetic, but it’s a very simple procedure.
It’s the best, fastest way for you to receive the treatment you need.

What experience do you have in writing – or reading – patient information?

Please share – your feedback will be very valuable.

And if your interest in how to write better extends to a wider range of writing, check out what we have to offer here.