Writing to patients during a crisis

14 April 2020 | | Uncategorised

The chances are that you’re using email to contact your entire patient base during this time. Whatever the news is, whether you’re announcing your temporary closure or informing your patients that you’re only seeing emergencies, you need to get it out there. It’s a lot of pressure for one email to communicate a message so important to you, your practice and your patients.

If writing isn’t your forte, don’t worry. I have some helpful tips on how to get started, how to write in the best tone of voice and how to proof your hard work.

Getting started

Don’t start with writing the letter, start with planning it. An outline will help focus on what you want to say rather than how you want to say it (that comes next).

An outline should look a bit like this:

Intro

  • We are closed but accepting emergencies.
  • Government guidance is the reason

2nd Paragraph

  • We are still taking calls and emails
  • Listen to the recorded message
  • For emergencies, call asap

3rd paragraph

  • What we are doing to help
  • Why we must close

Ending

  • Will be open in the future

The best thing about this route is that you can then start wherever you want. Start putting flesh on the bones and watch it take shape. This way is a good method for combating any writers’ block too.

How should you come across?

Your tone of voice should be informative and serious, yet be approachable and caring. It’s not easy to get the balance right, but there are some small checks that you can do when you read back through your writing to make sure the tone is suitable.

Avoid jargon

With so many official communications from Public Health England, the NHS and World Health Organisation, it’s easy to be swept up in medical language that is just part of life for health providers and dentists alike. Terms like PPE, aerosol-generating procedures or FFP3 respirators are very topical in communications with your peers but lend no help to your patients.

A good way to clean up jargon is to cut out acronyms. It might be a shorter way to say Personal Protective Equipment, but PPE actually hides the meaning. Calling it just ‘protective equipment’ is a perfectly good way to refer to it.

Soften with contractions

A contraction is where a phrase is shortened. The most common contractions are where letters are removed or replaced with apostrophes. A common misconception is believing that contractions dumb down language or make it too informal. In reality, contractions are closer to our internal voice and so makes writing more readable, approachable and generally kinder.

Examples of this:

‘We’ll keep you updated during this time’

‘If you’ve lost a crown or filling, don’t use super glue to fix it in place.’

Using contractions more frequently in your communications gives more weight to the unshortened verbs when you use them. Spot where the tone changes?

‘We’re doing all we can to keep our patients and staff safe during this time. Part of this involves closing our practice until the government lifts lockdown measures and we know that it’s safe for us to open our doors. Until then, please keep safe and do not leave your home unless for essential reasons.’

Shorten your verbs

Swapping long verbs for shorter ones will make the biggest change to the tone of your communications. It’s not the easiest thing to do, especially when the longer verbs are common in medical lingo. When you read back over your emails before sending, highlight the verbs. If they are longer than a syllable, try to think of a different verb.

Forget what your English teacher taught you. Don’t think up of a million different alternatives to ‘said’. The short verbs that we use the most are the ones that we learnt first and so we read them naturally faster.

Examples of the most common are:

  • Use
  • Do
  • Go
  • Take
  • Pay
  • Make
  • Choose
  • Give

Don’t be passive

When writing to your patients, you should always keep the voice active. It’s easier said than done as passive voice has a firm home in medical and scientific discourse. Converting passive sentences to active ones can take some getting use to.

So what exactly is a passive sentence? Here’s an example:

Treatment centres where urgent dental care can take place safely during the pandemic are being set up by local authorities.

And here is it in active voice:

Local authorities are setting up treatment centres where urgent dental care can take place safely during the pandemic.

Active voice always reads better because the flow is going left to right, whereas in passive, it’s reversed. You have to get to the end of the sentence to find out who’s setting up the treatment centres, whereas the subject of the sentence should be where you start.

In some passive sentences, the subject is dropped off completely.

“Your treatment plan is arranged.”

“X-rays are taken.”

“Mistakes were made.”

Passive sentences can feel impersonal and indirect, shifting the buck to someone else or just not taking responsibility at all. This is the last thing you want of your writing at this time so try to keep the flow running in the right direction.

Make sure you proof

Your email or letter might be free of the red and green wiggly lines, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe from typos. Spelling and grammar checks on word or Grammarly are pretty useful to have in your arsenal, but you have something they don’t – ears. You don’t need a head full of grammar knowledge to know when a sentence sounds wrong. Reading your writing out loud should snag any clunky sentences, missing words or bad phrasing.

The hazard of proofing your own writing is that you become blind to any mistakes. It’s natural for your brain to skim over even the most obvious of mistakes if you’ve been looking at the same thing for hours. Writers make mistakes all the time… that’s why editors and proofreaders exist!

Before you hit send, make sure you get someone else to read it. It doesn’t have to be a colleague. In fact, the more removed from the subject matter your proofer is, the better.

Signing off

In formal letter writing, how you start your letter or email influences how you sign off. The general rule is if you start the letter with the recipient’s name, you sign off with ‘yours sincerely’. You use ‘yours faithfully’ if you’re starting with ‘Dear sir or madam’ or ‘To whom this may concern’. Hopefully, you aren’t starting with that opener so ‘yours faithfully’ is out. Goodbye!

There are more friendly and approachable ways to sign off your communications, varying from ‘kind regards’ to ‘best wishes’. You should pick what sounds most like you, so use what you feel comfortable with.

Stay safe and write well!

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