I’ve worked in the consumer health team at BMJ for two and a half years. I joined in October 2011, having previously worked at the general practice magazine Pulse for five years. GPs are not exactly what you would call a general consumer audience. In my previous job I had spent a long time writing in a particular way and in a style that was crammed with medical language – medical terms, acronyms and the jargon and common parlance of the trade.
Coming to BMJ and having to write for patients, in plain language and straightforward terms, was difficult. Many of you reading this will appreciate that writing health information for the general public is something that most people think is a lot easier than it is, and something that is deceptively difficult to do well. I’ve had to learn a totally different approach since making the switch to communicating to patients, and it’s something I still learning about all the time.
It’s fair to say that BMJ is primarily known as a published of journals, news and other information for doctors. But most people don’t realise there is a team of editors and writers within the BMJ – three of us, currently – who specialise in writing for a general audience. We all come from different backgrounds career-wise, but we all have a background as writers and our main focus is working on consumer-facing products that bring the best that the BMJ has to offer in terms of evidence-based medicine, but is written so a lay person can understand.
Since joining I’ve already worked on quite a few patient information projects for the BMJ. The consumer health team currently produces Best Health, the BMJ’s patient information website, which has in-depth, evidence-based and fully referenced information on more than 200 conditions and operations (http://besthealth.bmj.com/x/index.html). Historically, the website was run on a subscription basis, and in the UK, all the content was made available for the public through the Boots WebMD website. But recently, we’ve made some of the content available for anyone to access through the Best Health website, and have been working hard through the Twitter feed I manage to promote the content to charities, patient support groups and of course PIF, who have been very supportive. By the way, do follow us on twitter @bmj_besthealth!
Alongside the in-depth patient information we write news stories that are also published on the Boots WebMD site. We aim to give an analytical take on medical research that you probably won’t see if you come across a story in the Daily Mail, for example. The idea is to ‘debunk’ any nonsense research, and explain what the strengths and weaknesses of a study might have been. A recent example is our story looking at a link between weather and back pain (Cloudy with a chance of low back pain – and yes, we were quite pleased with that headline!).
We update all of the content annually (we are also members of the Information Standard) so there’s quite a lot of work to be done keeping the content up to date. Our IS commitment also means we have a panel of lay reviewers who are a mix of patients, carers and the general public who review the content and their feedback feeds into our annual review process. That was a lot of work to get off the ground in 2013 and we made heavy use of our website and our Twitter feed to recruit members, but we are really seeing the benefits of it now. It means we have to work really hard to make sure our patient information meets the needs of patients. If anyone out there is or knows someone who would be interested in joining, please do drop my colleague Sophie Ramsey a line and she will add you to our list.
We also write summaries of (what are sometimes) very technical research papers in one of the BMJ journals, Annals of Rheumatic Disease. And recently we’ve had some exciting news, as our colleagues in the Journals department want us to write more summaries for ARD, and also expand to write summaries for several other journals as well. This is really encouraging, and hopefully a meaningful step towards producing medical research that is useful and relevant for patients, as well as doctors and researchers. We will certainly keep banging the drum withing BMJ!
Those of you who were at the PIF conference in May might have seen our poster, sharing our learning from producing a suite of patient decision aids for the NHS. This was a one-year contract and all of the PDAs have been live since April 2013. We felt this was a natural evolution of our work in patient information, and we are keen to produce more materials to support shared decision making in future. Personally, it was a really interesting project to be involved in. We worked with clinicians, charities, users and NHS stakeholders, and as we described in the poster, even though it was challenging to harness everyone’s different perspectives and contributions, it was really rewarding to create the PDAs. We definitely learned that evidence is only one part of the equation when producing patient infromation tools.