The United Kingdom's Academy of Medical Royal Colleges last week launched an initiative that calls for doctors to lose the medical jargon and communicate directly with patients—in plain English, Ceylan Yeginsu reports for the New York Times.
Currently, doctors in the United Kingdom typically relay medical information to a patient's general practitioner (GP) rather than to the patient directly. In these letters, doctors often default to Latin terms and complicated medical jargon, which can confuse the patients, Yeginsu reports. But in new guidelines, the Academy is calling on doctors to write to the patients rather than their GP. "Writing to patients rather than about them changes the relationship between doctor and patient," explained Hugh Rayner, a kidney specialist and leader of the initiative. "It involves them more in their care and leads to all sorts of benefits."
The Academy's 5 recommendations for doctors writing to their patients
To help doctors make the shift, the Academy offered five recommendations on writing and communicating information to patients:
1. Don't forget to include critical details, such as phone numbers and email addresses
The goal of the letter, according to the Academy, is to "help communication between clinician, patient, and GP." Therefore, the Academy notes the letter should include certain key information, such as relevant phone numbers, email addresses, and ways patients can access their electronic records.
But not all information is suitable in letter form, the Academy warns, noting that the letters are "rarely the best way to break upsetting news."
2. Ditch the scientific jargon
The Academy warns against writing "wordy letters" that are "hard to read." It suggests writers can make their letters more readable by:
- Removing redundant words, such as "actually" and "really";
- Writing shorter sentences; and
- Keeping each paragraph to one topic.
Further, the Academy cautions against the use of scientific terminology, medical phrases, and Latin terms. For example, in place of "renal," doctors should write "kidney." Or, when explaining a diagnosis, doctors should write "sudden or short-term" instead of "acute."
3. Consider adopting an informal tone
The Academy also urged doctors to "[c]onsider how formally or directly [they] want to present information." The academy notes a familiar style might work best at the outset of the letter, while in some cases a formal letter might be more appropriate, depending on the doctor-patient relationship and what's being discussed.
The Academy warns against stigmatizing words and comments, suggesting that it might be less stigmatizing to write "You have diabetes," than to write, "You are a diabetic."
4. Don't forget about confidentiality
The Academy also reminded providers that the rules for consent and confidentiality apply to patient letters. The Academy stated providers should always ask a patient for verbal permission to write a letter. When adults "lack capacity," doctors typically write to the GP and copy caregivers and relatives, the Academy noted.
5. Make sure you're speaking the patient's language
According to the Academy, doctors practicing in Wales have a legal obligation to provide information in English and Welsh. The Academy noted that providers may require "additional training and resources" to translate letters into other languages.
Patients voice support
The Academy launched a pilot program prior to rolling out the new recommendations, and Rayner said patient participants were overwhelmingly supportive of the changes.
One participant said that, after receiving the simplified letters, they now "understand the[ir] treatment," and are "happy to know that [they are] making some progress along the way."
Rayner said that the pilot results show that the small move from medical jargon to "plain English" will be "informative, supportive and useful," to patients (Yeginsu, New York Times, 9/5; Academy of Medical Royal Colleges report, September 2018).
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