Writing for patients and the public – top tips for medical writers

Writing for patients and the public - top tips for medical writers



hello and thank you very much for the invite to today's med cons networking event my name is Jane Peckham and I've worked in the pharmaceutical industry to the last 25 years but I think a particular relevance for this session is I've spent a long time working in the arena of medical information during that I spent a lot of time not only talking to patients and the public but also writing to them in terms of their inquiries and responses so I'm really really passionate about clear communication to patients but I'm also a bit of a peasant I was gone my local restaurant the other day and the menu sounded great but I don't know whether you also look at this and go oh my word whether it just makes your toes curl and I'm sorry apostrophes capital letters and things and so it's a love/hate I think being a medical writer because these things that leap out at you at the page really but what I would like to do is to give you a few tips along the way I'm a believer that writing is a true challenge I also believe that it's really easy just to write rubbish to put it simply put it down don't worry about the order and just let them figure it out you know you've done your bit and I love this quote from a former US president I shan't name who but we've said that if you can't convince them confuse them and sometimes when I look at patient materials arrived through my letterbox I think what are they trying to say but I really do think that what is much much harder is to make writing clear concise and understandable and by understandable and helping understandable on the first read not leaving them to unpick the details and try and make sense of it so with my passion for an interest in writing I took on a personal challenge and if you've come across the plain English campaign they are real champions within the UK all about clear communication and I decided in a weak moment to undertake their diploma in pain English I thought myself I know how to right this will be a double no problem but actually I learned how much from it and the big thing that I learned is that I knew that writing is a true skill but I actually now think that writing for patients is just an amazing skill that should never ever underestimate writing a document if it takes you ten minutes for a healthcare professional if it then takes you an hour for the patient I think you probably spot-on because each word has to be handcrafted along the way so in this session I'm giving you a quick refresher of some key writing skills but also give you a few top tips which you might be doing or maybe just bringing them back into the forefront of your mind you might want to think about when you're actually writing I think the real starting point is before you ever start to write it's one of obvious but have a plan it's a very very easy just to start writing pop something down in word up we go and things but I think your starting point is to think about what is it that you need to communicate but if you can more than that because it's really it's about the reader it's not about you as the writer it's about them so what is it that they want to know and if you've not got the clear brief from whoever's last you to do the writing then I would actually say go back and get that because that has to be the the starting point or what I see a lot in patients and just general writing is that it's very easy to get carried away maybe we're writing in an area where we've had to do some personal research and there we go are actually interesting and so what we tend to do is include information which I cancers so what it's of no relevance to them they as an expert patient will know it already so at times you need to be brutal and just take it out and again come back to that point as to what do they want to do the other thing that I'm most strongly suggest that you do is that when you're thinking about what am I trying to get across is to always think to put the most important information first so if there is something that they need to do a call to action they need to complete a formal go to a website or register something like that always put that right at the beginning because we're all human if we are faced with even a page document two pages if it's beyond do we genuinely read all the way to the end we probably don't people don't read that information miss Dennis they've got about so there's something and they need to do it needs to shout from the front from the get-go and that is wide some sort of executive summary approach can actually be really really helpful if I think back to medicines if we think about patient information leaflets I think that is why we always have an index you know section one is about these section two is about that so it acts a signpost to allow the reader to get to the bit that they want to read rather than having to labora kilig Oh through all the information and probably give up along the way another thing which I think is really critical when you're writing for patients from the public is to keep it personal this example at the top more information can be provided by the prescribing healthcare professional where hey how exciting is that but does not on the street actually understand that does that feel personal friendly engaging I don't personally think so so we could switch that into something like if you need more information please ask your doctor nurse or pharmacist we within the pharmaceutical industry may often talk about health care professionals but probably if you've stopped somebody walking down the high street and say well what does that mean to you they probably wouldn't know so it's about translating art the sort of jargon that we use into terms that really will be understandable to it to man on the street the other thing which I think is really really key it's to chop your sentences keep them short I always say to people fall in love with the full-stop it's easy to write lulls or both sentences with godly and sub-clauses along the way but you know what it's much much easier to understand you know short sentences maybe 15 to 20 words something like that and so if you're finally that you are writing a letter and you started with I am writing it's like well yeah I know I've got the letter in front of me so just be brutal chop it out and it may be that this is a food based process draft something and then go back and reflect on what you've written but be brutal but not too brutal where you've chopped out so much that actually you become rude and a bit aggressive in your writing it's a bit of a fine balance but keep that you know that friendly style if you go along jargon I would say it's probably one of my biggest bugbears and one of the major things that I constantly see we live in a highly technical medical writing environment but we can't really have to bear in mind that that is not the case for the vast majority of people who are going to be right leading our information the average UK reading age is that of a nine to 12 year old child so you've got the pictured more the the fun reader the tabloid reader and so it men are writing we're talking about pharmacovigilance healthcare professional adverse event even or if we talk about the you know the lovely black triangles and talking about additional monitoring then put yourself in their shoes are they really going to understand those terms probably they're not so you need to constantly be thinking about how can we translate that Farmar convictions you might be talking about drug safety healthcare professionals that would be your nurse your doctor your pharmacist adverse event probably just a side effect that's what most people understand and black triangle additional monitoring hmm yes I think you've got to go back and try and explain that if they get any side effects then they need to contact the company or maybe the the lovely yellow card reporting scheme and so expanded by adding more more words but a slight caution there if that we've got to always remember that what we try to do is make it understandable but we don't want to dumb down our writing to such an extent that we've actually become patronizing and a bit insulting so you've got to think about who is your reader if you are a writer for an expert group of patients or the public then they may well understand all this complicated terminology so to keep that in mind and it may be that you've got to adapt your style you know to meet the specific target audience that you're writing for another thing that I often see is about using correct and also consistent terminology and my tip for you here would be to think about using sort of every day almost conversational words in your writing and if you've got the luxury go and talk to some patients who have got maybe the disease the condition and see what terms they're using and follow them but if you haven't got access to them and we don't always then maybe have a look at some medicines and look at the patient information leaflets because all those have gone through a phase of user testing so it's gone out and they've been tested on on real live patients and they will have picked up on phrasing and to make sure that's understandable and also I think another brilliant source of information is to have a look at some of the really great patient websites that are out there just a little example for you and a while ago I was writing some information for people with rights problems and I thought I didn't want to offend anybody I wanted to be politically correct in my terminology and I initially thought that yet slight problems that that encompasses you know all those you know different visual problems going on but then I stopped and thought hold on how I got that term right and for me I then went on to the RNIB so the Royal National Association but for blind people and actually they is a completely different terminology and they talk about people who are loosing their sight or maybe you're blind or partially sighted I didn't want to offend anybody by talking about you know if you're blind I thought although shy away from that and so that really helped me to make sure that I've got appropriate terminology by looking and seeing what are the big associations what terminology are they they're using so that might be a great way to find you know correct term and then as I said you need to be consistent it's very very easy to start off and you're talking about blind people but then halfway through your writing you then switch across to fight problems which you know could be really confusing for the reader so I'd say pick your term and stick with it and make sure that that is repeated you know during the material that you're writing another important thing when you're writing materials for for anyone really but I think it's particularly critical for the patients is that the layout is super critical and as I've said before we can't assume that they are going to start at the top and go all the way down to the bottom and read every single word so what I've done is giving you a couple of examples to show how I've changed the layout hopefully to make it you know a bit more attractive now I purposefully blurred out that the the wording because I don't want you to be distracted but I hope the sentiment comes across so if you were greeted by something like this this is some technical writing that I did lots of p-values results from this type of thing you might be looking at that and thinking oh my word it looks very very text heavy it looks a bit dull on the page not to the that's engaging for anyone really but then what I try to do is to change the format of it and so hopefully the key points you can see here is it towards the top there I've incorporated some bullet points and what that's done it's changed the whole of the top area of that section and it's incorporated white space white space as the name suggests is purely blank area on the page and this is really really important in terms of conveying and making it more understandable headings are great because they act as signposts and again incorporate more white space on the page and it's very much about keeping fairly short paragraphs along the way and thinking about including that information in maybe tables maybe graphically as well because the eye is automatically drawn to that and it's a brilliant way of really information clearly and concisely the other thing that you might be tempted to do particularly for patients is to think might we can put some visuals in let's get some trendy infographics along the way some little icons and things but that's all well and good but I just caution you very very slightly on that this was one that was incorporated into an old-fashioned patient information leaflet and so this was before the days of user testing and they have this lovely little symbol there which some people say to me well it looks like a coin with a question mark some people say oh yeah definitely a tablet and some people go hatchling was not a clue what that depicts and actually what they said it depicted the proper heading with what is it used for so this section was meant to clearly say to patients look for that and it will tell you the indications for medicine but you might well be looking there and scratching your head going no I would not associate that image with that heading so it just reminds us of thinking along the way that if you're going to choose an image then pick one that people will truly recognize along the way interesting just as a little sideline now when you look at most modern-day user tested patient information leaflets there are now very very few graphics unless it's more of an injection device whether explaining how to put the needle on depress the button because actually they found that they were really confusing patients along the way so being mindful of that if you're you know going down the route of images also think about formatting the plain English campaign and they have a great website and they've got health information on there are very very passionate about three things in particular putting lots of text in capitals you've got a big heading you want to make it stand out so you put it in block capitals but actually this is amazingly aggressive and it takes something a lot longer to read block text than having stupid thing up and down of a normal upper and lower case they're not keen on italic they're really not and I've just done this in loose the calligraphy to tie and demonstrate it if you're trying to speed read it slows you down so avoid that if you can possibly and the last one that they show you know they comment on its underlining I know some people are really hooked on underlining so it's a major change to try and get away from this but I've just taken that the classic M typing sentence which shows every character of the alphabet and what I want you to do is focus on the Q the J of jumps and then the Y in the the word lazy because your favorite depending where the underlining falls within the font it cuts through the tails and so again if you're trying to speed read that quick the Q actually looks more like a letter A so it will slow us down but lazy that wise comes into a V and so again we just have to think a little harder to be able to read that text so as a consequence plain English campaign since one of the I've adopted will so don't underline it's particularly critical for websites because that also still signifies a hyperlink so if you've got underlined text you'll find users are trying to click on it of course they then don't go anywhere final point just clipped a flag which started off with that lovely menu with the capital letters and the the pasta this correct of course what if Sloan water is always proofread all your work I'm probably preaching to the converted here but however you do it don't just rely on a spell checker an ode to a PC if you've got every single word there missed out apart from the letter A that would perfectly go through a spell checker but of course the the description at the bottom is absolutely gobbledygook so don't just rely on that and if you make mistakes with typos and things you'll soon find that the reader actually starts to mistrust your information they might tolerate one but beyond that like open we're not happy with this and they'll discredited so that gives you a few of my tips and our thoughts along the way if you are thinking out it sounds very interesting I would like to know more than I run sort of the spoke in house training on a lot of aspects both medical writing but also patients writing as well and also undertake some writing projects along the way if you'd like to know more there's my websites out there's my email so please do get in touch so many thanks [Applause]

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