In today’s patient-forward healthcare climate, medical practices who don’t have a content-centered strategy to attract and retain patients and enhance their reputations are losing out to the competition down the street.
84% of people expect brands to provide content that entertains, tells stories, provides solutions, and creates experiences. But 60% of all content created by brands is poor, irrelevant, or fails to deliver.
But writing great content takes time, diligence, and patience, things that might already be in short supply during a routine day at the office. Let’s face it, most medical practices don’t have 5-star writers on their staff (and if you do, hold onto them for dear life!), and where content marketing is concerned, anything you write and put out in the public eye is a direct reflection on your practice. So you’d better get it right the first time because you won’t get a second chance.
For all our brave practice manager clients out there who are rolling up their sleeves and putting their pens on the line, we wanted to help you knock your writing out of the park. So without further ado, we present the first installment in our Grammar Tips Series: Hacks for Better Writing.
Below we’ll share 5 tips on medically-related grammar twisters we regularly come across and the anomalies that regularly challenge us. We want to save you the aggravation and benefit from our experience. Here we go.
1. Do You Capitalize Medical Degrees in Bios?
You’ve been writing your staff’s biographies for years (for your website and your practice brochure), and you still have no clue whether medical degrees should be capitalized or not.
Here’s the deal.
Both the Associated Press Stylebook (APA) and the Chicago Manual of Style recommend that you capitalize any academic degree only when you use its full name such as Bachelor of Science or Master of Nursing. When you use a general reference as in bachelor’s or master’s, capitals aren’t used, but a possessive apostrophe is needed unless you’re referring to an associate degree or doctoral degree. You shouldn’t capitalize the major specialty either.
Here are some correct examples:
- Bachelor of Science in biology, Medicinae Doctor (Doctor of Medicine), Doctor of Osteopathy, Master of Science in nursing
- bachelor’s degree in biology, master’s degree in physician assistant studies
- Ph.D. in sciences, M.S. in mental health, B.A. in chemistry
Abbreviations note: you should use terms like B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. only when you need to identify many individuals by academic degree and using the full name of each would make your text too bulky. And if you’d rather use MS or BA instead of M.S. or B.A., that’s fine also, just be consistent.
2. Board Certified or Board-Certified?
This one still ties us up in knots occasionally.
The rule of thumb here is that both are correct, in different contexts. You should use board certified when it comes after a verb, as in “He is board certified in cosmetic surgery,” but employ board-certified when you use it as an adjective before a noun, as in “He is a board-certified spine surgeon.”
The challenge here is when you have more than one writer or proofreader for any one document. Your writing or editorial team needs to be on the same page or else you may have fits continuously correcting diverse individual writing styles.
3. Bullet Points: A Black Hole of Ambiguity
If you’re looking for standardized rules about writing bullet lists, we’re sorry to disappoint you. Bullet points are more about a document’s formatting than it’s linguistic style; therefore, you have a bit more leeway in how you use them.
Bullet lists are great for organizing and presenting a lot of information to your reader in a concise and eye-catching way. The rule of thumb when using bullets is to make them as easy and quick to read for your audience as possible. Here are some general guidelines.
A bulleted or numbered list should
- visually emphasize information
- capsulize a concept
- facilitate reading comprehension
Should you capitalize each bullet?
Different style guides offer different recommendations. Generally, if you use complete sentences in your list, the first letter should be capitalized, and the sentence ended with a period. If you’re listing clauses or phrases, you don’t need either. However, if you feel that capitalizing your bullet phrases will make it easier and more digestible for your reader, than go for it.
Try not to mix complete sentences with phrases or clauses in your lists; use one or the other. You can use any symbol for bullets, but in our experience, small circles or squares tend to work best.
Example (both are correct):
Anti-inflammatory medications are used to relieve mild to moderate pain for the following conditions:
- headaches and migraines / Headaches and migraines
- fever / Fever
- muscle tension / Muscle tension
- arthritis inflammation / Arthritis inflammation
Example – This afternoon’s agenda is as follows:
- We will go over all of our patient reviews from last month.
- Dr. Jones will talk to us about using the new phone system.
- Betty will update us on the new office procedures.
Example – His duties and responsibilities included the following:
- taking vital signs
- preparing patients for surgery
- performing post-operative exams and analysis
4. Five or 5: When to Spell Out Numbers?
In more casual or non-technical writing, it is recommended to write out numerals in full from zero to one hundred. However, for scientific writing, the trend is to write out numbers less than ten, and larger numbers written as figures.
As is often the case with the English language, exceptions do exist, but your primary goal should be to express numbers consistently and in a way that doesn’t disrupt the flow of your text. Here are some correct examples of number usage:
- Ms. Smith said there are ninety-nine reasons why she loves Dr. Jones.
- Census reports showed there were 54,265 people over the age of one hundred in the U.S. in 2013.
Don’t forget to use a hyphen between spelled out two-word numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine. And you should write out round numbers like hundreds, thousands, or hundred thousand. Uneven numbers or those that cannot round flow better written as figures.
- The doctor realized there were only six vaccinations and three injections to treat four thousand patients.
- The orthopaedic conference brought in 24,235 attendees.
If your sentence begins with a number, the general rule of thumb is to write it out, or change the sentence, so that is doesn’t start with a number to have better flow for your reader.
- Three of our physicians were nominated for Doctor of the Year.
- Eighteen seventy-nine was the year Einstein was born.
- In 1879, Einstein was born.
If you have a document using specific numbers often, or percentages, it’s probably best to use figures, but whatever you do, don’t mix using numbers and spelling them out.
NO — In four days our volunteers increased from four to nine to 18 to 33.
YES — In four days our volunteers increased from 4 to 9 to 18 to 33 (note that four is still spelled out because it refers to a different quantity).
5. The Colon and Semicolon Revisited
These two punctuation marks are probably the least understood of them all. When the heck are you supposed to use either one and how? Take a breath because once you know the key differences between the two, you’ll be able to confidently sprinkle them in your writing and impress your readers with your prowess.
The semicolon is used to join closely related independent clauses. So if you’ve got two related sentences, but you feel that separating them with a period would be too strong, just plug in a semicolon. Here are a couple of examples:
- This is my husband’s second marriage; it’s the first for me.
- The physician is a board-certified plastic surgeon; she is also my good friend and mentor.
Be careful not to use a comma between two independent clauses, or you’ll create what’s known as a comma splice (a grammar no-no).
Incorrect: Our new lobby is painted white, it also has new carpets
Correct: Our new lobby is painted white; it also has new carpets.
And what about the vaunted colon? A colon is used after a complete sentence, or independent clause, to introduce a list or a quotation. It is usually preceded by the words “the following” or “as follows.”
Example: If you want to shed those pounds, you need to give up three things: beef jerky, cotton candy, and chocolate doughnuts.
Example: The little boy in E.T. said something I’ll never forget: “How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?”
We’re Here to Help
We know the writing process can be harrowing for many, and even if you have talent, your primary duties may not give you the luxury of rolling up your sleeves and cranking out some serious content.
Like we always say, you wouldn’t trust your teeth and gums to just any quack with a mirror and a drill (at least we hope not). The same should apply to the content of your website which is often the first point of contact potential patients have with your practice. Leaving that task to anyone less than a writing expert with years of experience creating engaging and dynamic content could come back to bite you down the road.
We hear time and again from the medical practices we work with that a patient testimonial article (and video) tipped the scales for undecided patients on specific surgeries and procedures.
If you need help with any of this, we’re here to help. Feel free to reach out to us at any time with your questions or concerns. And stay tuned for the next installment of Hacks for Better Writing where we tackle, among other things, commonly confused words. Do you know the difference between accept and except?