Illustration of doctor communicating with patients

For better or worse, my parents rely on me to translate medical information they see online and hear in their doctor’s office. Recent queries include, “Which magnesium capsules should I buy for my foot cramps?” “What should I do with your father’s dementia quiz results?” and “Do you think I ought to be taking a statin?”

Who do I look like, the U.S. surgeon general? I’m a medical writer, not a physician! Yet here my parents are, relying on me for health-related advice. What could possibly go wrong?

If only hospitals and providers had some way to communicate with my parents and patients like them in a clear, concise manner. Oh, wait—they do. There are lots of opportunities for clear patient communication, in fact, including websites, brochures, emails, text messages, fact sheets and more.

The problem is that patient communication materials can be confusing, incomplete and even off-putting. Among the issues:

  • Too much jargon
  • Dense paragraphs and complex sentences
  • Content that speaks “at” people instead of meeting their needs
  • Health information that’s hard to find

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here at WriterGirl, we stand with the International Plain Language Federation, whose members believe readers should be able to “easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” But we also know how difficult it can be to keep this maxim front and center. After all, you’re dealing with a million content-oriented challenges every day, from using the right keywords to tracking down approvals from busy subject matter experts.

Never fear; we’re here to help with seven tips to guide your next patient communication project.

Banish the buzzwords

Medicine is becoming more complex, and the English language is expanding to keep up, with jargon that can confuse the uninitiated. As a writer, it’s tempting to use buzzy terms because they sound good and often capture the essence of a new idea, procedure or research finding. That’s why we might write a sentence like this:

“The novel biomarker may help predict your body’s treatment response.”

Instead of this:

“Genetic tests may help your doctor predict how well the treatment will work for you.” 

Finding an alternative to your favorite buzzwords may require patience and some quality time with But it’s worth it to make sure readers aren’t wandering off into deep mumbo jumbo territory.

Keep it patient-centric

Does the following sentence look like something you might write?

“Our expert team offers comprehensive, multidisciplinary care with a focus

on meeting each patient’s unique needs with cutting-edge treatments and compassion.”

Of course it does! We’ve all written sentences like that. Unfortunately, they tend to leave patients feeling a bit cold, even with the word “compassion” tacked on the end. Patients don’t want to know about a care team’s attributes and technologies. They want to know, “what will this group of providers do for me?”

The answer may look something like this:

“Our physicians and staff care about you. They will work together to understand your needs and provide advanced therapies so that you experience the best health possible.”

Ah, I feel better already.

Use plain language

If you’ve worked with WriterGirl, you already know we are big proponents of plain language. In fact, on October 13, we celebrate International Plain Language Day with an all-night rager at our CFO’s house—it’s awesome!

All kidding aside, plain language is essential. Easy-to-read content helps improve:

  • The user experience (regardless of one’s reading level)
  • Searchability on the web
  • Population health
  • Health care costs
  • Brand trust

Everyone—patients, your next-door neighbor, my mother, people who speak English as a second language, the Amazon delivery guy—benefits when content is easy to understand. Plain language is such a high priority that the U.S. government offers guidelines, virtual training and even laws to support its use!

So get on board and write plainly—WriterGirl can help with free tools and resources.

When in doubt, ask for input

Being a medical writer for 25+ years has dulled my sense of what “normal people” understand. The other day I told my husband (a very normal person) I was writing about skull base conditions and asked him what he thought that meant. His answer—“umm, conditions that are based in the skull”?—made me think about how to make my content clearer. He was close (the term refers to tumors that form at or below the base of the skull). But for people trying to understand a new tumor diagnosis, close isn’t close enough.

The next time you aren’t sure whether your intended audience will understand your writing, ask a normal person in your life. And if you don’t have any, consult Grammarly or Readable. Those apps will tell you straight up: “Your sentence may be unclear or hard to follow.”

Make your content easy to find

Patients, by definition, are receiving care for a medical issue. They are potentially worried, not feeling great and have a low frustration threshold for finding the information they need on your website.

Making content easy to find begins long before you type your first keywords into a Word document—although choosing the right keywords is vital. Searchability starts with content strategy that includes a “gap content analysis.” WriterGirl’s content strategy experts—Nikki Breen and Stella Hart—eat, drink and breathe this stuff! And they can tell you all about it in a recent blog post highlighting the ins and outs of gap analysis and why it’s important for healthcare marketers.

Say it in pictures…and on video

As much as we love words here at WriterGirl, we also love a good video, graphic or illustration. These visuals can engage patients and help them understand complex concepts in ways that text sometimes can’t.

Check out this video from Cincinnati Children’s about hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, and you’ll never forget Max the Angry Microphage (even if you can’t pronounce hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis). Or watch this patient story from Emory Healthcare about a Walmart employee who found a new spring in his step after hip replacement surgery. Now, there’s a before-and-after description that words alone couldn’t capture.

When including visuals with your content, be sure to:

  • Add a written summary
  • Use closed captions for videos to improve accessibility
  • Write descriptive alt text to accompany images, which helps with searchability 

Stay human

In a world of Google algorithms, writing bots, web crawlers and long tail keywords, it’s easy to forget that actual humans are reading our content and possibly benefitting from it. So remember: the next person who needs information about acupuncture, arrhythmia or the aortic valve just might be your mom. And you certainly don’t want to let her down.

Do you need help with your patient communication? 

WriterGirl’s team of healthcare writers partners with your organization to create content that resonates with your audience. Send us a message to learn more about how we can support your content marketing initiatives.