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Plain and Simple: The Genius of Plain Language in Healthcare Communications

March 23, 2015

We are invested in your satisfaction and strive to consistently deliver a patient experience of the highest quality. Please notify a staff member immediately if we do not meet or exceed your expectations…

Those eloquent words were posted on the wall in my room in the Emergency Department. I was mulling them over when the doctor arrived. He flashed a light in my eyes. Then he pushed and pulled on a few of my body parts. “I’m ordering a C-spine series,” he said as he left the room.

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What?

I’ve worked in the healthcare industry for 20 years. I have a college education. I was thus better equipped than most to understand what my doctor had just told me. But under the circumstances, I had plenty else on my mind. Had my car accident broken any bones? Was the at-fault driver insured? How quickly was I going to be able to replace my totaled car? How long would I be out of work? And if I had to venture out of my room, would the gap in the back of my hospital gown reveal too much? To add to my worries, my aches were gradually moving toward the weeping, frowning face on the pain scale. This was turning out to be a rough day, and the kindest thing that anyone could have done for me would have been to make some part of this experience a little bit easier for me. Anything.

And someone finally did. When I arrived for my X-rays, the Rad Tech simply said, “I’m going to take a few pictures of your neck.”

In my mind, a choir of angels erupted into a chorus of “Hallelujah.” Now THIS I understood.

I’m going to take a few pictures of your neck. Although my doctor had said the same thing, I liked the Rad Tech’s way of saying it much, much better. Her explanation was short and simple. There were no medical terms that a layperson couldn’t grasp. There was zero room for confusion. Back in my room, my eyes returned to the words on the wall. We are invested in your satisfaction and strive to consistently deliver a patient experience of the highest quality. Please notify a staff member immediately if we do not meet or exceed your expectations…

I thought about an easier way to convey the message. Maybe this would have worked:

We care about you and want you to have the best care that we can give you. Please tell us if there is something we can do better.

For those of us who write information for patients to read, this is our biggest challenge and most important job; to make it as clear and simple as possible. We can’t do that by simply running text through a readability test and tweaking the content until the grade level drops. Instead, we have to analyze every word and ask ourselves these questions:

  • Is there a simpler way to say this word or phrase? The simpler, the better.
  • Is this a term that laypeople would understand? When you have a choice, avoid medical jargon that someone without a healthcare background might not easily grasp.
  • Are there unnecessary words? Drop them. Less is more.

In the end, my injuries were minor, my car was replaced, and I was back to work in three days. And thankfully, there were no revealing wardrobe malfunctions with my hospital gown during my time in the Emergency Department. The wreck was a minor pain in the neck – literally – but it gave me a small opportunity to have the patient experience for myself. I’m glad it did, as it gave me a whole new appreciation for how to best communicate with patients.

I challenge you to think about patient communications all throughout your facility, everywhere they occur – in direct conversations, in patient education materials, in signage, on menus, and in videos. Try to experience them just the way I did – through the eyes and ears of someone who is fearful, worried, and in pain.

As songwriter Woody Guthrie said, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”

Stay Informed
Check out http://www.health.gov/communication/literacy/plainlanguage/PlainLanguage.htm for more resources on writing in plain language in healthcare and the evidence base that connects it with better patient outcomes.


About the Author
Amy Mora, MBA, MHA, RHEd, joined the TeleHealth Services family in 2014 as the Client Support Manager. She brings 20 years of experience as an educator in the healthcare industry. 
She previously served as the patient education coordinator for a large healthcare system in North Carolina and has patient care experience as a former EMT-I. Amy is also the author of Nursing Novellas, an educational fiction series of stories about interpersonal issues impacting the healthcare workforce. Amy is a North Carolina Registered Health Educator and has a Bachelor of Science in Health Behavior & Health Education as well as a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Health Administration. She is excited about supporting Tigr clients in their efforts to improve patient satisfaction and outcomes.

Please feel free to forward this story to your colleagues, friends and others who take an interest in enhancing the patient experience. For republishing requests, please contact PatientED@telehealth.com.