As medical writers, the heart of our work is to convey information to a specific audience. Writing for patients, we are trusted with interpreting highly technical information to educate, protect, enable, and empower our readers. The result of poor understanding can be directly harmful to health. However, successfully informing patients leads to better health outcomes, including more preventative care and fewer hospitalizations.
In this post I offer 3 questions that will help you use plain language effectively and successfully when writing for lay audiences.Who is my audience?
Understanding who you are writing for is the first question a writer needs to answer.
- Nearly 9 out of 10 patients in the US have low health literacy.
- Patients over the age of 65 and those living in poverty and with less formal education are more likely to struggle with understanding health care options.
- Low-health literacy patients use more health care.
When writing for a patient audience, it is imperative to make your writing accessible to everyone who may need to understand what you’ve written.
What are their needs?
This is the second question you need to answer when writing for lay audiences. Good information that is clearly delivered empowers patients. Understandability is key to helping patients follow the best advice science and medicine have to offer. Whether your patient reader is a healthy 20-year-old woman who has questions about a family history of cancer or a 75-year-old man considering lifestyle changes after a heart attack, the goal of patient education is the same: to inform patients on best options for living their healthiest life.
How can I communicate most effectively?
This is the third question you need to answer. Lay audiences come in all shapes and sizes, with differences that impact their ability to understand what you’re saying and take appropriate action. Not only is there a wide range of reading abilities, there are also language barriers and cultural differences that impact the success of your communication. Differences like color blindness, blindness, and deafness also need to be considered.
Barriers to understanding can be invisible, too. The nature of the content you create will clue you in on a reader’s specific challenges. Will the reader be a sleep-deprived new parent? Will she or he have cognitive overload from caring for a sick mom or dad? Will readers be anxious about the diagnosis of a serious illness? Knowing the reader’s position gives you essential background information. Using techniques to make your writing brief and comprehensive will help readers in their time of need.
Below are a few suggestions to help you write more effectively for lay audiences.
Consider the structure, content, and design of the communication vehicle
Blocks of text are overwhelming. Below are the top tips for delivering content:
- Put the most important information first.
- Use simple language. Software that checks for grade-level readability can help.
- Break up paragraphs with bullet points.
- Use bolded and italicized type for key information.
- Pictures, videos, and diagrams provide support to text.
Diagnosing your work by reading grade level is the first step to putting your language into the recommended 4th to 6th grade reading level. There are dozens of programs that do this, including the Fry Formula, SMOG, and Flesch tests. If the diagnosed level seems too high, take a closer look at the words and sentences you’re using. Can they be simplified?
Caution: Though they are helpful tools, the above programs are based on algorithms that look at factors like word and sentence length. Keep in mind that clear, simple statements are the writer’s job.
Tailor the content for audience differences
Depending on the breadth of your audience, you may need to create more than one version of your document. Informing health care practitioners on a new pharmaceutical means answering different questions in a different register than providing patients with information on that same drug. You have two audiences. Many consumer websites offer a tab for “professionals” and a tab for “consumers.”
Check out RxList for an example of versioning.
Make it easy for patients to navigate
By using signpost words and phrases, you can prepare and cue the reader to key pieces of information. The most basic of signposts, listing, is a natural fit with patient instructions.
Start by telling the reader what they will learn. “After reading these instructions, you will know how to clean your CPAP machine.” Then, give the piece structure with the signpost words first, second, third, and last.
Review your work through the eyes, ears, and minds of your audience
Writing for patients may mean simple language and fewer words, but it asks for great skill from medical writers. More than any other audience, patients require we put ourselves in an uncomfortable position. This audience asks us to understand the cognitive challenge facing the elderly, poor, or overwhelmed patient whose health is in question. Writing with empathy while using professional skill makes this a unique and valuable task for medical communicators.