Doctors issued with new guidance on how to write easy-to-read patient letters

Hospital doctors have been given new guidance on how to write letters that are easier for patients to understand.

Outpatient clinicians have been advised to write most of their letters in a style that is direct to patients, rather than to their GPs.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges issued the guidelines in an effort to better inform patients, give them reassurance and avoid confusion, mistakes or offence.

There are more than five million outpatient visits a month in England alone, producing a vast number of notes that are usually sent back to family doctors.

The notes can contain complex medical jargon or abbreviations that are incomprehensible without specialist knowledge.

“Communicating effectively with patients is central to being a good doctor,” the guidance states.

“Writing an outpatient clinic letter directly to the patient, rather than sending them a copy of a letter sent to their GP, can greatly improve communication with a patient.

“Patients who receive such letters much prefer them, are very appreciative, and would like more doctors to write them in this way.”

Doctors’ letters must meet clinical requirements set by the Professional Record Standards Body, although the academy has launched the Please Write to Me initiative to improve patients’ understanding of the notes.

The academy says writing directly to patients can help them cope with their conditions, remember all the information hospital doctors give them and relay it to family and carers.

It could also help a patient spot if an outpatient doctor has made a mistake with their personal details or medical requirements.

“Patients find the letters more informative, supportive and useful,” the advice states.

“Writing directly to the patient or the parent/guardian should also avoid awkwardness caused by writing about patients in the third person.”

The advice also recommends doctors write in a more “distant and noncommittal style” when trying to soften the impact of potentially sensitive information.

Meanwhile it warns that a letter is “rarely the best way to break upsetting news”.

The academy says the guidelines mean hospital doctors will have to learn a new skill, which could initially mean the letters take longer to write.

However it says it will not increase costs as letters rarely need to be written directly to the GP.

Furthermore the new method may avoid the need for a GP to explain an outpatient doctor’s letter at a later appointment.

The academy says the outpatient doctors letters should record relevant information about a patient’s health and wellbeing and present it in a way they understand, as well as relaying it to their GP.

“These three things are best achieved by a well-structured, informative, easy-to-read and engaging letter,” the advice states.

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