Santa’s little helper: engaging children to create information for patients

A cracker in the Christmas BMJ reports the insightful use of children to help create patient information leaflets. Whilst the article is tongue-in-cheek, in the spirit of the Christmas BMJ, there may just be something in it!

The average reading age in the UK is that of a 9 year old (remarkably). And yet the reading age of most patient information leaflets is considerably older – in the late teens. So, the team went to a primary school to enlist the services of actual 9 year olds to develop some new-look patient information for hip replacements. One of the most powerful aspects of the work was highlighting the, at times, brutal honesty of the children (“You might die” and “The surgeons may make a mistake and cut the wrong thing”). I’ve been involved in drafting patient information for a few different things (e.g. CPE and MRSA) so I know first-hand how there’s a tendency to ‘package’ these unlikely outcomes so as to avoid creating unnecessary alarm. But perhaps we need to take a lesson from these 9 year old leaders-of-the-future and include a dose of frankness in our patient information leaflets?

And then there’s the illustrations. There’s a whole industry of medical illustration out there to help support our patient information. But perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to include some 9 year old art too; as the authors say, it would almost certainly bring a smile to patients. I asked Joey, my 5 year old son, to draw a picture of germs in a hospital, and it was interesting that he drew multi-coloured germs on the hands of a doctor (see below):

“A doctor with germs on their hands”


The major criticism of all this is that whilst the average reading age in the UK may be that of a 9 year old, this is not the same as the average comprehension age, which I suspect is very much older. Clearly, we can’t insult / condescend patients with dumbed-down material or information that is viewed as trivialised in some way or other. However, we do need to find the most effective way to communicate with patients, and perhaps we can learn some more effective ways to do this from children!

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