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Doctors given guidance on how to write to patients

Use plain English and ditch Latin, doctors told

Jo Carlowe

Tuesday, 04 September 2018

Doctors should write letters directly to patients in plain English, according to new guidance from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC).

Writing directly to patients is in keeping with "Good Medical Practice", states the AoMRC in its new guidance on writing to patients.

There are more than five million outpatient visits per month in England, making outpatient clinic letters the most-written letters in the NHS.

The new guidance, published today, urges doctors to use plain English where possible. “For example, ‘kidney’ instead of ‘renal’,” with jargon explained in the body of the letter. For example: “You have an irregular pulse. This is called atrial fibrillation.”

Acronyms should be explained, medical phrases such as, "Your presenting complaint", should be avoided, and in the medication list — English should be used instead of Latin.

Hospital doctors should consider telephoning patients rather than breaking bad news in the letter if test results are potentially upsetting, the Academy says.

The guidance has been welcomed by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP).

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, vice chair of the RCGP said: "As healthcare professionals, patients are at the heart of everything we do, and that extends into the way we communicate with them – whether face to face, or remotely.

"When we're all so busy, it's easy to use language we're most familiar with as doctors, and other forms of short hand and jargon that might even be difficult for doctors working in one specialty to understand from doctors working in another, so for patients it could be really confusing.

"By hospital doctors writing any letters directly to patients, with their GP copied in so we are always aware of what is happening regarding our patient’s care, it should make the process more patient-centred, and make them feel more involved in their care, which will be beneficial for everyone. However, it must result in a patient-centred letter that allows the patient to understand what has happened, what has been found, and what the future plan should be. I have seen a number of patients who have asked me to 'translate' the letter they have received from the hospital, which has been little more than a medical summary.

"This is a really important change to the way doctors communicate with patients, and I'm pleased that through the Academy the concept has gained support from all specialties – it's now important to get the message out to healthcare professionals across the NHS, and start the wheels in motion.”

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