Apply the UPL

Principle 5: Use Plain Language

We should use simple words and phrases. We must eliminate unnecessary jargon and acronyms, explaining important medical terms in a straightforward way. We are having... Read More

We should use simple words and phrases. We must eliminate unnecessary jargon and acronyms, explaining important medical terms in a straightforward way. We are having a conversation with patients, and we should adopt an approachable style of writing.

We believe that when we use plain language, patients feel less overwhelmed and less intimidated and are able to better understand our communications.

Tool: UPL Rules

The UPL Rules provide detailed guidance on how each of the Principles can be applied in practice. We think the UPL Rules are the best way to get a good understanding of how to put the UPL into practice.

Below is a sample of rules pertaining to Use Plain Language:

Rule 29. Strive for an approachable, conversational, down-to-earth tone rather than formal or clinical.

  • a. When referring to yourself or your organization, use first person plural
    (‘we,’ ‘our’).
  • b. When addressing patients directly, use second person (‘you’).
  • c. When emulating the patient voice, use first person singular (‘I’).
  • d. Words and phrases shouldn’t be slangy, but colloquialisms and contractions are allowed and even encouraged.

Rule 31. Avoid using acronyms without introducing them properly.

  • a. You should only use an acronym if the patient is very likely to encounter it elsewhere.
  • b. If you must use an acronym, remember that patients do not read every page, or even every paragraph. Write out the full meaning of the acronym at least once every three paragraphs.
  • c. There are some acronyms that are used so commonly that they do not need to be spelled out. e.g., AIDS does not need to be written out as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Rule 33. Technical, medical terms should be used carefully, and primarily for teaching purposes so that patients can better navigate their healthcare conversations.

  • a. Always include a simple, consistent explanation of any medical terms.
  • b. Provide links or references to more detailed, complex explanations.
  • c. Simple metaphors are a useful way of explaining medical terms, and are encouraged.
    • e.g., “Tachycardia is like a lake with too many ripples.”
  • d. Strive to use the same terms consistently within the same communication and across communications within the same disease state.
  • e. If a medical term is mainly used for communications between healthcare providers, avoid using it in patient communications.
  • f. Respect the reader’s intelligence — beware of condescension.

Download the complete set of UPL Rules:

Ready But Limited

This tool still has areas for improvement, and more resources will be added over time.

Tool: UPL Style Guide

The Style Guide offers detailed guidance on how patient materials created with UPL should look and feel. It provides specific guidance on how to use plain language.

Style Guide topic examples related to Use Plain Language include:


Writing can be one of the clearest ways in which knowledge is shared, but the words and phrases need to be selected and constructed with care.

In this section you will find guidance on writing to communicate with patients as clearly and simply as possible, in a way that validates their experiences and inspires continued learning and education.


Download the complete
UPL Style Guide:

Primed & Polished

This tool has been validated extensively, and significant changes will be infrequent.

Case Study Highlight

This is an example of how the
Use Plain Language principle has been applied to Bristol Myers-Squibb (BMS) patient communications.

Helping Patients Understand Financial Resources

This case study highlights how we used the UPL to introduce resources that exist to help patients navigate information about their healthcare finances.

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