Written information: general guidance

Patient information will vary depending on who it is for and what it is about. However, there are some general rules and guidelines that you should apply to all written patient information.

When writing information for patients, remember the following points:

  • Try to write from the patient’s point of view
    Put yourself in the place of someone who may have little or no knowledge of what you are talking about. The exception here is the ‘expert patient’; someone who has a long-term medical condition and is very knowledgeable about it – for more information go to Communicating with different patient groups.
  • Use everyday language
    Use plain, everyday language to make your information easier to understand. Avoid jargon and acronyms at all times. Remember, as many as seven million people (roughly one in five adults) in England have difficulties with basic literacy and numeracy1, so you need to keep their communications needs in mind. Equally, don’t use overly simple or childish language, as this may appear patronising.

1. Lord Moser’s 1999 report ‘A Fresh Start’

  • Use patient-friendly text
    Use personal pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘you’, as this will help to create a sense of inclusion and trust. Avoid using language that may cause alarm. Phrases such as ‘electrodes will be put on your chest’, for example, could frighten patients and deter them from pursuing further treatment. If you have to use medical terminology, such as ‘nuclear medicine’, explain clearly what these terms mean.
  • Be relevant
    Make sure your information is relevant to and appropriate for the patient group it is aimed at.
  • Make sure information is consistent
    Your information should reflect and reinforce other information received by patients, such as letters, leaflets, appointment materials and all information delivered at local clinics.
  • Explain all instructions
    When asking a patient to do something, such as ‘don’t eat anything for six hours before an operation’, always explain why you are making this request. This will help patients to understand treatment processes.
  • Be helpful
    Help people to make decisions by giving them the facts: facts about the benefits, risks and side-effects of treatment options or medical interventions.
  • Don’t confuse people
    You should avoid discussing several different treatments and conditions in the same leaflet. Too much information on different subjects could cause confusion. Try to limit your leaflet to one or two subject areas and associated issues.
  • Signpost additional resources
    Always let patients know about other sources of information and support.
  • Be up to date
    Make sure that all the information you provide is evidence-based and up-to-date. You should also provide the most recent contact details for clinics, practices and hospitals.
  • Highlight alternative formats
    Let patients know if the information you are providing is available in other formats, for example in Braille or on audiotape.

Engage your audience

To make your text engaging and easy to read, use the following where possible:

  • Short sentences: in general, no more than 15 to 20 words long.
  • Lowercase letters: are easier to read, although uppercase is always required for the first letters of names and sentences.
  • Present and active tense: will make your text more direct and engaging. For example: ‘your appointment is on…’, rather than ‘your appointment has been made for…’
  • Question and answer format: will help you to divide up your text.
  • Bulleted or numbered points: will help you to break down complicated information, and will help patients to digest it.
  • Small blocks of text: long paragraphs can look daunting on the page; use headings and paragraph breaks to divide your information up.
  • White space: makes information easier to read.
  • Large bold font: very useful for highlighting and emphasising text, whereas uppercase letters, italics and underlining can make text more difficult to read.
  • Numbers as words: from one to nine, numbers are easier to read if they are written as words. From 10 onwards, they should be represented as numbers.
  • Font size of at least 12 point: any smaller than this, and text becomes difficult to read.
  • Diagrams and pictures: can be very effective for illustrating and enhancing text. Make sure that all imagery you use supports our communications principles. You should clearly label all individual pictures and diagrams, but avoid printing over them. And never use clip-art, as this can detract from our professional reputation.

You should also ensure that your materials express our core values and principles and follow our main brand guidelines closely.

Last updated: 07/06/10

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