Patient Education Materials that Work

Many companies and even regulatory agencies have specific guidelines for writing patient information that basically supposes the patient is illiterate, uninformed, uneducated, and mentally challenged. When a company insists that no patient material may contain words of more than three-syllable, how can they write about their implantable defibrillator? Defibrillator is a five syllable word and there is no easy way around that.

Rules for dumbing-down patient literature always seem crazy. The rules are always about big words or sentence structure.

This is not to say that the average patient is some erudite academic who reads the New England Journal of Medicine in his spare time. But let’s recognize what’s really going on.

There are two types of patients: those that will want to know more about their treatment and those that won’t. The latter group will ask few questions and likely not read or listen to any educational materials provided.

Of the group that wants to know more about the therapy, there are two groups. There is one group that is literate. Surprisingly, this country is full of literate people. Many patients and consumers are educated, intelligent individuals. Such people are often eager to learn more about their condition and will be grateful to accept patient materials. They actually read them. Sometimes they even ask for more.

Let’s call this group the “readers.” When you write for readers, you need only write well. You explain the condition, the treatment, possible adverse effects, and so on, and know that they will take it in. You cannot assume they have any medical background, so you must spell out basic medical practice, but otherwise, write well for them.

The second group of patients who want to know more are people who, for whatever reason, have trouble with reading. They may have another first language and struggle with English. They may be bright individuals who, for a variety of reasons, were under-educated; these people usually have poor reading skills. Some of them may have learning disabilities or physical challenges that make reading difficult. A few of them may be mentally challenged but still extremely interested in their treatment.

Writing anything for this group-at a basic level, even-is not going to work well. They don’t read. But that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate. It just means you’re not going to be as effective with a pamphlet as with some other methods.

Here are some ideas:

1. Make your printed piece a set of “illustrated instructions” with more pictures than text. Keep the text simple.

2. Consider the venerable comic book format. Tell the story mostly in pictures and use normal language as much as possible.

3. Go audio. Offer a CD or podcast version of your information. This is vital for the visually challenged but can be a good addition to those who don’t like to read or who learn better by audio.

4. Make a DVD. DVDs can be created nowadays inexpensively; they need not cost more than a nice brochure.

5. Translate this stuff. Illustrated instructions, audio and DVD can all be offered in more than one language. The DVD can put them all on the same disk.

Thus, a smart company can create two levels of patient literature: a literature-type product which involves reading skills and a more media-type product which suits those with weaker reading ability. If done well, your two patient manuals can connect with each other-you might have a pretty thorough patient brochure with a companion DVD. You provide them both together as one unit and the patient self-selects the preferred way he or she wants to learn.

The value of great patient literature cannot be overestimated. Great patient literature is an excellent service that organizations can provide to their customers and patients; the demand for this kind of material is enormous.

(Hint to medical companies: Hospitals often find themselves unwittingly in the publishing business because patients demand high-quality take-home information and there are few sources to find it. If you can help meet the enormous and constantly growing demand for patient materials, you are not only doing a service for patients, you can raise awareness for your own company and products at the same time.)