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Written Communications

Might help to think in terms of an acronym– the core requirements of good written communication in the treatment workplace.

Factual – contains the required information, preferably without much exaggeration or embellishment.

Accurate – to the best of your knowledge, it’s free from errors of reporting or description.

Clear – to the point, readable, easily understood by the reader. Avoid unnecessary jargon when communicating with someone outside your narrow field.

Timely – in other words, prompt. For most of us, that means developing better time management skills.

As we noted, written communications have limits that verbal communications don’t. That’s especially true for anything that finds its way into a client record. Those can be and often are subpoenaed for Court. How would you like to find yourself in the position of explaining something to a plaintiff’s attorney three years after you wrote it in a rush to avoid being late to pick up the kids? Better to have done it right in the first place.

What’s a fact? Something that actually happened. We can verify facts. Facts ordinarily form the core of written documents. We want to make sure we get key facts across in our communication.

Accuracy comes from reporting facts and describing events without significant distortion. In healthcare, we value objectivity. Most of our written communications are to portray complex situations in an objective way, without unnecessary embellishment.

Clarity is perhaps the most difficult to achieve. Many of us made it all the way through school (even graduate school) without learning how to write clearly. It’s the groundwork for misunderstanding. No need to be grammar cops, but we do need to understand how good sentence structure makes it easier to communicate.

Timeliness is about deadlines, something of which the treatment process is chock full. History and Physical within 24 hours, assessment within 72, treatment plan completed by day 5, progress note after every session… it’s seemingly endless and getting worse every year. Falling behind means struggling to catch up, and that’s not only stressful, it leads to poor quality.

One way to teach staff to recognize and include important facts is to start with a complicated story about a real case, and then ask them to pick out the key points. This can be more difficult than it sounds. Some student’s have a tendency to omit the truly important in favor of something else of questionable relevance.

The lesson: Even when you’re paying attention, accurate, factual reporting can be a challenge. Nonetheless, in a world where people and programs get sued, it’s a skill worth picking up.

Teaching clarity often begins with a brief review of proper sentence structure– subject, verb, object– followed an exercise where students are asked to write an incident report about a real-life occurrence, using the approved form. It’s a bit of a shock how dependent we get on jargon when regular old English will do a better job.

For most treatment programs, timeliness comes down to time management, which is about prioritizing. In one program I settled on a ‘do it now’ mantra that emphasizing completing the day’s easiest tasks first, so they didn’t back up while you were working on something difficult. That helped ensure the staff member’s plate was relatively clean when they got around to the more challenging tasks.

In a way, written communications, print or electronic, are more important in the life of a modern treatment program than the interpersonal stuff. Sad, I know, but it’s still true. We’re often in the position of spending more time documenting what we do than in actually doing it.

The NiaTx website has some interesting ideas on simplifying and reducing paperwork, so take a look.

That is, if the rest of your work is done…