Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Please be advised that your evening repast may be found situated within the family pet

This blog has been rather quiet of late. I've been away on leave, and although I've had access to the internet I had other things to do and didn't post a single thing.

Since I've been back I've been reading patient leaflets. I proof read them. A lot of people who write leaflets apparently don't have a spell check on their PCs. I check the evidence behind any statements made. I check that the material hasn't been plagiarised (i.e. blatantly copied from elsewhere without permission or proper attribution). I ask tricky questions about the copyright of the various pictures, diagrams and other embellishments that appear. And I despair over the quality of English used.

Why is it that although we manage to use simple words and sentence structures face to face, we get hit by some horrible wordiness every time we put finger to keyboard? If a patient asks where the canteen is you say, "oh - the canteen's on the second floor. Follow the signs to Cafe Blue." If we want to put a paragraph in a leaflet about the canteen we write, "canteen facilities may be found situated upon the second floor." If a patient rings up and asks about bringing their life savings and all their jewellery with them when they are admitted we say, "it's best to leave all your valuables at home. I'm afraid we don't have anywhere really safe to keep them here". If we write that down it transmutes into something awful on the lines of "Please be advised that it is not recommended to bring valuables..." (and I can't even face typing the rest of it.)

For those of you who are Essex Rivers staff there are guidelines on the intranet about patient leaflets. There are plenty of guides on writing patient information. There are plenty of guides on writing simple and straightforward English. My simple tip would be to read - out loud - everything you write. And then see if you can actually imagine saying that to a patient or anyone.

I sometimes feel we have an obsession with writing our own leaflets. Why reinvent the wheel? (Or - in NHS speak - "Do once and share.") Find someone else's evidence-based, up-to-date, well-written leaflet. Then you have two options. Contact them. Ask them to allow you to use their text. Get their written permission. Then make the leaflet your own - add your own logo, your own phone number and so on. Please, please do not try to "improve" the leaflet by adding extra words that really aren't needed.
Option two? Well, why not be really radical and not write a leaflet at all? That's right. Don't write one. Buy in copies of the perfect leaflet you found elsewhere, show your patients how to find it on the internet, or give them a phone number to call for their own copy.
You'll find good quality information for patients in the National Library for Health, at Patient UK and through NHS Choices. For cancer information the major cancer charities produce excellent information and the Great Ormond Street factsheets are useful for childhood illnesses. The American National Institutes for Health are also a good source of straightforward patient information, but these may need to be tweaked to have UK versions of drug names and so on added.

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