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Am Fam Physician. 1998;57(9):2038

An ever-increasing demand for high-quality patient education materials led AFP to venture into publishing patient information handouts a few years ago. What we soon discovered was that developing educational materials for patients is a lot different from editing and writing materials for our physician readers. We started under the assumption that most patients could read at a high-school level. However, we quickly learned that while most patient information materials are written at this level, literacy studies have shown that the majority of Americans read at a fifth- to eighth-grade level.

Armed with this knowledge, we try to reach a patient audience at this reading level. However, as you know all too well, explaining complex medical subjects in simple language is no easy task. Most of AFP's patient information handouts are written by our physician authors to complement their clinical review articles. Although our authors offer great expertise on their subject matter and no doubt begin with an understanding of the need to write on a relatively low level, they often begin with the same overestimation of average reading levels that we originally had. Tailoring these materials to a reading level appropriate for most patients usually requires a cooperative effort among staff editors, patient information specialists and authors.

We'd like to share with you just a few tips on writing patient information materials that we have picked up over the years:

  • Keep the focus of the material limited to a few important points.

  • Write in the words you would use if you were speaking to a patient sitting across from you.

  • Keep words, sentences and paragraphs short. Use fewer than 15 words in each sentence. Use mostly one- or two-syllable words. Narrow the focus of each sentence to only one idea. Avoid using compound sentences.

  • Use simple punctuation. Avoid using colons and semicolons.

How well do AFP's patient information handouts meet the needs of their patient audience? Judge for yourself. This issue contains four patient information handouts, on pages 2148, 2169, 2189 and 2207. We welcome your feedback and will add to our list any tips you may have for us or other potential authors of patient education materials.

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Copyright © 1998 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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