Doctors told to ditch jargon and use ‘plain English’ – which could aid asbestos sufferers

Posted: 10th Sep 18 4:50 PM

Doctors in England are being told to adopt a new policy of writing in language that is easier for patients to understand, which could help people with asbestos-related diseases.

Too often does correspondence between doctors and patients contain complex medical jargon and convoluted language rather than plain English, says the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC).

The phrase “twice daily” is much easier to understand than the Latin abbreviation “bd” when explaining the dose of medicine to take, for example.

The AMRC, which represents the UK’s 250,000 doctors professionally, is urging them to undertake a potentially major change to their relationship with patients by writing to them themselves, instead of sending letters to their GP and copying the patient into that correspondence.

AMRC says that people should ask their local hospital to comply.

Keeping it simple

The move comes after a trial found that both doctors and patients favoured the new system.

If doctors follow the advice, contained in new guidance called the “Please write to me” initiative, it would affect the 5 million letters a month sent to GPs after every outpatient appointment.

Peter Rees, chair of the AMRC’s patient committee, said: “Patients will certainly welcome this move, not least because they are generally far more informed about their health these days and it helps them take ownership of their care.”

“It also helps patients remember what was discussed in the outpatient clinic and gives them a confidence that the doctor sees them as a person, rather than a case. Patients should push for this at their local hospitals,” says Peter Rees.

The academy says this could also help avoid any blunders or offence caused by writing about patients in the third person.

Keeping it suitable

Doctors should think about softening the impact of potentially sensitive information by using a more non-committal style.

Any medical words or jargon should instead be translated to plain and simple English. For example:

  • Dyspnoea should be breathlessness
  • Acute should be sudden or short-term
  • Chronic should be long-term or persistent
  • Pulmonary should be lung
  • Oedema should be swelling or fluid
  • Syncope should be faint

Hospital doctors should also consider phoning patients rather than breaking bad news in a letter if test results are potentially upsetting, says AMRC.

The “Please write to me” initiative is being led by Dr Hugh Rayner, a kidney specialist, who first started writing directly to patients in 2005.

“The change may seem small, but it has a big effect.

“Writing to patients rather than about them changes the relationship between doctor and patients. It involves them more in their care and leads to all sorts of benefits.

“Millions of clinic letters are written every month in the NHS so this change could have a big impact,” said Dr Rayner.

The Royal college of GPs is also on-board with the proposed changes. Vice-chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne said: “I have seen a number of patients who have asked me to ‘translate’ the letter they have received from the hospital, which has been little more than a medical summary.

“By hospital doctors writing any letters directly to patients, with their GP copied in so we are always aware of what is happening regarding our patients’ care, it should make the process more patient-centred and make them feel more involved in their care, which will be beneficial for everyone.”

How can this help people affected by asbestos?

We often hear from people worried about their exposure to asbestos, who have been for an appointment with a specialist and come back with more questions about their health than answers.

Many of the terms used for asbestos-related diseases and their diagnosis – such as pleural thickening, pleural plaques and mesothelioma – can seem confusing for someone who doesn’t already know what has caused them to develop and how they affect the body.

A lot of the time this confusion can cause someone to distance themselves from their diagnosis, trying to put off getting more information. This brings up the issue of limitation.

Everyone only has 3 years to make an asbestos compensation claim from the date of their diagnosis. If someone puts off getting information from their doctor, or they do not realise what they have been diagnosed with, they may run out of time to seek financial assistance through compensation.

The terms used for asbestos-related diseases can and should be explained to patients more clearly – if someone is diagnosed with pleural thickening, for example, they should be told that this is a disease potentially caused by asbestos exposure and it develops when the tissue lining the lung thickens.

The same goes for the jargon describing their symptoms. If someone not medically trained is told they suffer from dyspnoea and pulmonary problems they might not understand what this means and how their health is affected.

If they were told instead that they suffer from breathlessness and lung problems, this can clear up a lot of confusion and allows the patient to seek the best advice as soon as possible.

If you or a loved one is ever diagnosed with an asbestos-related condition, or you are worried about asbestos exposure, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the National Asbestos Helpline. We’re here to help you with advice about your condition and can also advise on any benefits and/ or compensation you might be entitled to. Call us on Freephone 0800 043 6635, or email

Further reading

Pleural thickening and pleural plaques – What are the differences?

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

Emotional needs of people exposed to asbestos revealed by study