Tips For Improving Written Communication To Patients

To help patients proactively manage their health, many healthcare providers supplement what they tell patients during appointments with written content. This may include printouts of educational material about their condition, healthy lifestyle tips, or hand-written notes about the patient’s condition and treatment plan. Physicians may also refer patients to websites or social media sites, or send emails with additional information. 

But is this content patient-friendly enough and presented in a way to meet its objectives?

In too many cases, the answer is no.

Most healthcare content may be beyond the reading abilities of many patients. A U.S. Department of Education study found that 36% of adults have only basic or below-basic skills for comprehending health material. To make matters worse, patients dealing with a serious diagnosis often find it difficult to process complex information accurately. 



It’s clear that simply giving patients a pamphlet or a link to a website is not enough to ensure understanding or to motivate a behavior change. But there are steps that practices can take to help with patient comprehension.

Practices that are conscientious about selecting or developing written content that is easier to read may increase the chance that patients will use it correctly—saving staff time, and improving patient outcomes. Supporting this is a 2010 meta-analysis showing that adherence to treatment was more than twice as high among patients whose physicians communicated effectively. 

To make written instructions as useful as possible, they should incorporate the following: 

  • What patients need to do and why
  • When patients can expect results (if applicable)
  • Warning signs (if any) patients should watch for
  • What patients should do if a problem occurs
  • Who patients should contact for questions or concerns
  • How patients can be prepared for problems

Educational materials should clearly state how to prevent or manage disease without a lot of extra information. It helps to ask, “Is this something the patient needs to know or do to stay healthy?”

Content is just a part of the story, though. The way information appears on a page, in an email, or on a website or social media site can determine if it will be read and used by the patient, or ignored. Whether your practice is creating new content or selecting existing print or digital information, keep in mind that it should do the following: 

  • Keep it short—patients shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time reading 
  • Communicate one idea at a time—too many topics can be confusing and hard to remember
  • Communicate as if talking to a friend—a conversational style is easier to understand
  • Use an encouraging tone and emphasize small, practical steps
  • Limit the use of medical jargon, and define any medical terms that are used
  • Avoid lengthy lists—limit to 3-7 bullet points

Healthcare providers can increase patient comprehension by using written content together with spoken instruction to focus on a specific point that needs reinforcement. It can help to review the content with the patient, and highlight important information and discuss how it relates to the patient’s care. It can also improve understanding if you use visual elements and graphics.

 One important note: It’s key to get patient feedback when giving new information or instructions. But healthcare providers should avoid asking, “Do you understand?” Even when people don’t understand, they will likely say “yes” when put on the spot. Instead, physicians and their staff should ask questions like, “How will you take this medication? Where will you keep it? What will you do when you need more?” 

Asking for immediate patient feedback is an easy way to confirm that patients truly understand the healthcare information they need to know—the first step on the road to better patient health outcomes.

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