New drive to encourage doctors to write to patients in plain English

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By Denis Campbell Health policy editor

Guidance from Academy of Medical Royal Colleges suggests specialists should avoid Latin terms, acronyms and convoluted language

Hospital doctors are being told to write letters directly to patients, and in plain English, in a move the profession’s leaders hope will sweep away the use of baffling medical terminology.

The initiative by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges aims to make medics use clear language to describe medical conditions instead of Latin words, acronyms and complex jargon.

The academy, which represents the UK’s 250,000 doctors professionally, is urging them to undertake a potentially major change to their relationship with patients by writing to the latter themselves, rather than sending letters to their GP and copying the patient in on that correspondence.

If doctors heed the advice, contained in new guidance called “Please write to me”, it would affect the 5m letters a month that are sent to GPs after every outpatient appointment. The move comes after a trial found that both doctors and patients favoured the new system.

The long-established system of copying patients into letters sent between doctors has forced some patients to then visit their GP to have the contents of the letter concerning the gist of their consultation and future treatment explained to them in terms they understand. Critics believe tradition has given doctors an air of aloofness and been frustrating for patients who lack the ability to comprehend some or all of what is being said about them.

The new guidance drawn up by the academy, and endorsed by all its members, which represent all the branches of medicine, tells doctors that they should:

  • Avoid using Latin, for example using “twice daily” instead of “bd” (bis die)
  • Use short sentences, plain English, and cover only one subject in each paragraph
  • Use “I” and “you” rather than “he” or “she”, and use active rather than passive verbs
  • Avoid the many acronyms that are common in medicine
  • Do not use words that can cause confusion, such as “chronic”. Although in medical circles it means a longstanding condition, many patients think it means “really bad”
  • Doctors should also say “children’s” rather than “paediatric”, “kidney” instead of “renal” and “brain” instead of “cerebral”, the academy also suggests.

Peter Rees, chair of the academy’s patient committee, said, “Patients will certainly welcome this move, not least because they are generally far more informed about their health these days and it helps them take ownership of their care. It also helps patients remember what was discussed in the outpatient clinic and gives them confidence that the doctor sees them as a person rather than a case. Patients should push for this to be adopted at their local hospitals.”

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