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Hospital correspondence – writing to patients in plain English

The Academy of Royal Colleges has issued guidance for clinicians when writing to patients, in particular following outpatient appointments.

Broadly, the guidance is two-fold: (i) hospitals addressing letters, for instance following outpatient clinics, directly to the patient and copying in the GP (as opposed to the converse which is the norm); and (ii) using understandable terminology rather than complex medical jargon.

Writing to patients direct

The guidance notes that the above is in keeping with Good Medical Practice and the NHS Constitution in terms of keeping patients fully informed with respect to their medical treatment.

It is noted that clinicians who write directly to patients achieve a more patient-centred communication style, with GPs consequently having to spend less time between hospital appointments explaining medical terminology in clinic letters to patients.

It is also noted that this is more personable than writing about patients in the third person and helps to improve the doctor-patient relationship.

Furthermore, it is suggested that clinicians should give consideration as to whether certain information is provided, at least in the first instance, by telephone as opposed to in writing, such as when informing patients of potentially upsetting developments in their condition and/or treatment.

Writing in plain English

There is guidance on what a well-structured outpatient letter should contain, namely documenting relevant facts concerning a patient’s health and wellbeing, providing information in an understandable manner and setting out a management plan.

It is noted that the use of Latin should be avoided, for example stating ‘twice daily’ rather than ‘bd’ and avoiding complex medical jargon where possible, such as ‘kidney’ rather than ‘renal’.

Guidance is also provided on consent and confidentiality, whereby a patient’s permission should be sought to follow-up their consultation with a letter addressed to the patient and copied to the GP.

What this means for you

The Academy is encouraging Medical Schools, Royal Colleges and Specialist Societies to produce their own specific guidance following this publication. This is guidance and is not therefore mandatory. However, the Academy is mindful that Good Medical Practice provides that: ‘You must give patients the information they want or need to know in a way they can understand.’ The Academy is of the view that writing letters in plain English and direct to the patient helps to achieve this. The initiative is supported by the Royal College of GPs.

The publication can be found by clicking here.

This publication can also be seen as part of the wider movement to continually make healthcare more patient-focussed and to support patient autonomy.

Should you wish to discuss this matter further, please contact a member of our Healthcare team.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

This page may contain links that direct you to third party websites. We have no control over and are not responsible for the content, use by you or availability of those third party websites, for any products or services you buy through those sites or for the treatment of any personal information you provide to the third party.

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