Health service professionals read and write mountains of paperwork. Developing a clearer, more direct style of writing will save time and money for all concerned, as Robert Ashton explains
Ask any manager in the health service how many documents they have to read each month and their answer may make War and Peace seem like a light read before bedtime. And it's not only reading - they probably spend at least as long writing. After all, the health service produces millions of pages of documents each year: white papers, policy documents, reports, meeting minutes and board papers to name but a few.
So with all the debate over how to run a leaner health service, writing is surely one area that offers significant scope for efficiency improvements and cost cutting. All these documents demand significant investments of time to write and read. And time costs money.
Of course, health issues are a serious matter and sometimes complex, so no-one is suggesting that writing about them is always straightforward. But does that justify the opaque and verbose writing style that characterises so much of what is written in the sector?
Take this example from a recent Department of Health guidance document:
"The aim of this resource pack is to help organisations promote and implement the use of an HR Leadership Qualities Framework that describes those behaviours which enhance NHS capability and improve the patient experience."
Presumably what this means is something like:
"This pack will help you promote and introduce an HR leadership qualities framework. In turn, the framework will help improve the service we give patients."
So why did whoever produced this document not write that? The reason could well be a reluctance from the highest level down to embrace a clear and plain-speaking writing style. Here are some basic, time-saving measures to jump-start the journey towards clearer and more cost-effective writing.
1. Remember your reader
It is too easy to forget that many of the people you write for are not familiar with the latest health speak. Nor are they necessarily familiar with government jargon. Think before you use words such as framework, advocacy, add value, stakeholder and deliverables. Yes, these may be in everyday use within your own organisation. But will an external audience know exactly what you mean?
2. Avoid redundant words
Redundant words are a common feature of health services writing. Look at this example from a primary care trust report:"The policy stipulates a specific requirement for mothers who are returning to work to be allowed a maximum of one hour per day to facilitate the continuation of breastfeeding or for expressing milk."
This translates to:"The policy allows mothers returning to work up to one hour a day for breastfeeding or expressing milk."
The rewritten version contains nearly half as many words. Put that reduction in the context of a whole document. Imagine how much time people could save both reading and writing.
3. Verbs are better than nouns
Use verbs rather than nouns. They are shorter and more to the point. Replace "the provision of" with "provide" and "the implementation of" with "implement". And go for "consider" rather than "give consideration to".
4. Be specific
Make sure no-one accuses you of being vague or ambiguous. What do statements such as "a large percentage" or a "we have consulted as widely as possible" actually mean? Never assume that you can get away with this kind of writing. Readers will know that you are either trying to gloss over an issue or are unsure of the facts.
5. Use short paragraphs and sentences
Short paragraphs and sentences are quick and easy to read. Long paragraphs are an instant turn-off and long sentences force the reader to keep re-reading each sentence.Each paragraph should have a separate theme. And every sentence should convey only one idea. Trying to shoehorn too much information into paragraphs and sentences make them poorly constructed and difficult to read.
6. Verbs should be active
Active language gives your writing more impact and makes it easier to understand. Take the phrase: "An investment of£5 million in a new cancer testing awareness campaign has been made by the trust."
Turn this into:"The trust invested£5 million in a new cancer testing awareness campaign."
This is by no means a definitive list. But even putting these six simple steps into action could have huge cost-cutting benefits for the health services in the long term. Not to mention the benefits for the health and well-being of the people in the health services sector who have to read and write all those documents.