Translating complexity into understanding: Lean writing and plain language in medical communications
Clear and effective communication in the healthcare field is crucial for ensuring precision and accuracy. Lean writing and plain language are two approaches that significantly contribute to achieving this goal. In this article, I explore these concepts and their principles, specifically in the context of medical writing and translation.
What is lean writing?
Lean writing, derived from lean manufacturing principles, aims to optimize efficiency and eliminate waste in communication. It focuses on conveying information concisely and effectively to the intended audience.
Key principles of lean writing:
Eliminating wordiness: Removing unnecessary words, phrases, and repetitions to ensure clarity and conciseness.
Example: Instead of "The patient experienced a significant reduction in pain levels as a result of the administered medication," say "The medication significantly reduced the patient's pain."
Using active voice: Prioritizing active sentence structures for directness and engagement.
Example: Rather than stating "The medication was prescribed by the doctor," say "The doctor prescribed the medication.”
Organizing information logically: Structuring content logically to guide readers efficiently through complex medical concepts, research findings, or treatment guidelines.
Example: When discussing treatment options, you can use "The treatment options for this condition include lifestyle changes, medication, surgery, and alternative therapies.” Here, you start with the initial lifestyle changes, progressing to medication if needed, then considering surgery as a more advanced option, and finally mentioning alternative therapies as complementary approaches.
Avoiding jargon: Using simple and commonly understood terms instead of technical or specialized medical language.
Example: Instead of using technical terms like "myocardial infarction," say "The patient was diagnosed with a heart attack.”
Emphasizing clarity: Ensuring that messages are clear, unambiguous, and easily understood by healthcare professionals, researchers, and diverse audiences.
Example: Rather than saying “Based on the findings of the research study, it can be concluded that there is a positive correlation between regular exercise and cardiovascular health," say "The research study found a positive correlation between regular exercise and cardiovascular health."
What is plain language?
Plain language aims to make complex medical information accessible and easily understood by a wide range of audiences, including patients, caregivers, and those with limited health literacy.
Key elements of plain language:
Using simple and familiar words: Opting for everyday language that patients and non-medical professionals can easily understand.
Example: Replace "The patient experienced acute dyspnea" with "The patient had sudden difficulty breathing.”
Breaking down complex concepts: Explaining intricate medical terminology, procedures, and treatment options in a simplified manner for better understanding.
Example: Instead of using complex terminology like "percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty," say "The procedure involves a balloon angioplasty to open blocked heart arteries.”
Writing in a conversational tone: Adopting a friendly and empathetic writing style that engages the reader and enhances accessibility.
Example: Instead of using a formal tone like "Please ensure to take your medication as prescribed by the physician," use a conversational tone: "Remember to take your medicine exactly as your doctor told you.”
Using clear headings and subheadings: Organizing medical content into distinct sections with descriptive headings to facilitate navigation and awareness.
Example: Instead of a generic heading like "Treatment options for diabetes," you can use a more specific and clear heading: "Managing Diabetes: Treatment Options and Strategies.”
Providing visual aids: Incorporating culturally adaptable visuals such as diagrams, illustrations, or infographics to enhance understanding.
Example: Instead of relying solely on text, you can include an infographic showing the medication dosage schedule with visuals and clear instructions.
Testing with the intended audience: Conducting user testing with representative individuals from the intended audience to ensure clarity and incorporating feedback.
This may include involving patients and caregivers in the review process to ensure that the content is easily understood and addresses their needs.
The combined power of lean writing and plain language
The combination of lean writing and plain language principles in medical writing enhances communication effectiveness and promotes understanding among diverse audiences.
By integrating these approaches, you achieve the following benefits:
Clarity and conciseness: Lean writing eliminates unnecessary elements, streamlines content, and ensures concise messaging. Plain language techniques simplify complex medical information, resulting in clear and easily understood writing for healthcare professionals and non-experts alike.
Greater understanding: Avoiding jargon and using plain language techniques makes medical concepts more approachable. The combination of lean writing and plain language principles facilitates understanding among patients, caregivers, and individuals with limited medical knowledge and literacy levels.
Accessibility: Plain language techniques, such as visual aids and clear headings, improve navigation and understanding. Lean writing complements this by eliminating unnecessary complexity, making the content accessible to individuals with varying levels of health literacy, cognitive abilities, and language backgrounds.
Patient-centered approach: The combined approach of lean writing and plain language in medical writing places a strong emphasis on the needs of patients. By prioritizing clarity, simplicity, and accessibility, medical writers can effectively communicate important medical information to patients, empowering them to make informed decisions about their health and treatment.
Effective communication across cultures: These benefits extend beyond language barriers. When medical content is prepared using lean writing principles, it facilitates efficient translation and adaptation into different languages and cultural contexts. Plain language techniques complement this by ensuring that the translated content is culturally appropriate and easily understood.
In the dynamic and diverse field of medical communications, harnessing the combined power of lean writing and plain language leads to communication that is not only efficient but also empathetic. By using these strategies, medical writers and translators translate complexity into understanding, facilitating trust and effective healthcare communication. This enables healthcare professionals, researchers, and patients to engage in meaningful dialogue, exchange knowledge, and promote better health outcomes.
Ana Sofia is an English to Portuguese medical translator and writer working with Life Sciences companies, Contract Research Organizations, and Medical Communication agencies. She has experience translating and writing content for clinical trials, medical devices, regulatory submissions, education and marketing campaigns, and scientific publications.