Why do we dread reading medical records and legal notifications? Because we don’t understand them, that’s why. Who knows what kind of crucial information we’re missing out on simply because of overused jargon, poor grammar, misspellings and a stupefying abundance of words.
But now, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, the increasing number of patients with direct access to their electronic health records is forcing some radiologists to reassess their writing and grammar skills.
Radiologists, who use imaging techniques such as MRIs, ultrasounds and CT scans, play a critical role in the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases. However, their reports traditionally have been treated as private communications with referring physicians, who then share the news with patients. As such, the reports often use jargon that is “perhaps purposefully” opaque to others—and are sloppily written, to boot—according to an open letter in the Journal of the American College of Radiology from a group of radiologists, published online in May and released in print this month.
Michael Bruno, director of quality services and patient safety at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center at the Penn State College of Medicine and lead author of the letter, suggests most radiologists (and countless other professionals, we’ll add) simply don’t know how to write well. They have trouble with brevity, basic sentence construction and word choices that avoid ambiguity or misunderstanding, according to the Journal report.
Bruno offers a report-writing workshop for radiology residents at the Hershey facility. Here are two examples of what they learn:
Imagine if leaders in other professions took the time to develop similar workshops for the public information documents they create. The following types of documents would be so much easier to understand — and public perception of the people who write them would likely improve:
• Legal Notifications
In our ideal world, the email sent to eBook buyers last week by state attorneys general would have done a better job of explaining why people were receiving it than this first paragraph does:
The Apple Settlement provides for three possible outcomes, depending on the decision of an appeal of the Court’s July 10, 2013 finding that Apple violated the antitrust laws (“Liability Finding”). First, if the Court’s Liability Finding is upheld, Apple will pay $400 million to Eligible Consumers. Second, if the Liability Finding is sent back to the District Court for further consideration of whether Apple violated the antitrust laws, Apple will pay $50 million to Eligible Consumers. Third, if the Liability Finding is reversed, Apple will make no payments.
What, many recipients might wonder, did Apple do in the first place? A little context goes a long way.
• Police Reports
An old forum on Officer.com offers some unbelievable examples of poor writing by our men and women in blue, including “Saw drunk, arrested same” and “A pon my arivel…”
• Court Documents
Paralegal Today reported several years ago on two incidents in which poor writing and bad grammar came back to bite the attorneys in question:
A bankruptcy attorney in Minnesota was publicly reprimanded for unprofessional conduct and ordered to pay court costs after repeatedly filing documents the court considered “unintelligible” because they contained numerous spelling and typographical errors. Additionally, the attorney was required to attend legal writing courses. The judge wrote in his opinion, “Public confidence in the legal system is shaken … when a lawyer’s correspondence and legal documents are so filled with [these] errors that they are virtually incomprehensible.” In re Hawkins, 502 N.W.2d 770 (1993).
In Mississippi, a defendant appealed a district attorney’s burglary indictment, stating that it didn’t charge him with anything because it contained bad grammar. In part, the indictment charged that the “goods, ware, and merchandise unlawfully, feloniously and burglariously did break and enter.” The defendant presented an English teacher as an expert witness. In its opinion, the court said if the “rules of English grammar are a part of the positive law of [Mississippi], [the defendant’s] burglary conviction must surely be reversed, for the indictment in which he has been charged would receive an ‘F’ from every English teacher in the land.” Even though the court held the indictment to be legally sufficient, the judge stated that even Shakespeare could not have understood the indictment, which was “grammatically unintelligible.” Henderson v. State, 445 So. 2d 1364 (1984).
(Just because these cases are old doesn’t mean they’re not relevant today.)
Let us know in the comments below what other professions should have employees undergo training to help them write better.