Kill Typos, Not People
The Issue At Hand
As a doctor with 20 years’ experience, I specialise in health writing for a wide audience.
I’m ecstatic to see paternalistic attitudes dwindle in our profession. These days, health care providers are devoting more energy than ever before into patient-centred communication.
But before we look at how to do it, let’s look at the consequences of poor communication with patients/clients.
Dangers Of Inadequate Communication
Have you ever come away from the doctor's with a feeling that your questions haven't been answered, or perhaps that you are confused by what has been discussed? If the doctor hasn't been clear, the outcome might be worse than dissatisfaction alone.
The same applies to written, audio and video health content. A message delivered with the wrong wording, tone or level can significantly affect its effectiveness.
Here's an article looking at the consequences of not getting the message right. By the way, for ‘patient’ we can also extrapolate to ‘customer’ or ‘client.
The authors concluded an aftermath of “unnecessary pain, in avoidable deaths, in poor health outcomes, in the prolongation of illnesses” and “costs in terms of the financial part of the equation, in large sums of money that get spent unnecessarily because of the communication breakdowns and barriers”.
Good quality health communication is key to good outcomes.
What is patient-centred communication?
It is clear that communication aimed at health consumers needs to be written in a particular way, informational but also in a style that will be well-received.
This article published in PubMed Central® suggests that core concepts include:
- Eliciting and understanding patient perspectives e.g. concerns, ideas, expectations, needs, feelings, and functioning.
- Understanding the patient within his or her unique psychosocial and cultural contexts.
- Reaching a shared understanding of patient problems and the treatments that are concordant with patient values.
When it comes down to written forms of patient-centred communication, here are some further recommendations for success.
How to succeed
Great readability. Gone are the days of being allowed to wow the patient with medical terminology and complex language. As a rough guide, it is often said that prose written for the health consumer should be easy enough for an 11-12 year old to understand.
The right style of writing. Language and style needs to hit the right tone. An article for a wellness magazine is going to be written differently from a newsletter from a health care provider, or a blog on an online support forum run by expert patients.
Writing for a particular platform. Here are some interesting statistics from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA):
- an overwhelming majority of Australian adults (89 per cent) access the internet—climbing to 100 per cent among those aged 18–34
- the mobile phone is the most popular and frequently used device for internet access
- 70 per cent of Australians are using five or more separate communications services for personal purposes
With globalisation, the rise of small businesses, and a tsunami of social media and digital communications, unfortunately there is no ‘one size fits all’. Content and style should be tailored for a particular audience and platform.
Keep it current. Content needs to keep up with today's controversies, news and trends.
Make it evidence-based. As much as possible. Reputable sources and citations give authority to content.
Ensure technical accuracy. The dull yet still essential part: grammar, spelling, punctuation and word usage. A typo or incorrect use of a word can scupper an otherwise good piece.
Where to go for high quality health-related content
It helps to do some research when choosing a medical writer. Their qualifications such as a medical degree, Chinese medicine, dietetics can often determine their ability to write on a certain topic.
Ask for samples of their work. This is a great way of finding out more about their standard and styles of writing. If available, seeing testimonials from their clients can also be helpful.
Don't forget to check out your national medical writers association for a list of qualified writers, such as the American Medical Writers Association or the Australasian Medical Writers Association. Writers who are members of these groups are vetted and must provide of qualifications before they can be listed. There is usually a bio within each writer's listing too.
And finally, websites such as Fiverr offer freelance writer listings.
With so much at stake, choose your health writer wisely.
© 2019 Alice Lam