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Plain language summaries: what format do patients want?


  • 167 patients and caregivers were surveyed on 4 different plain language summary (PLS) formats: infographic or text-based with varying complexity.
  • Infographic and medium-complexity text were the preferred PLS formats; oversimplified text was viewed negatively.

Results of a survey published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research have revealed that the preferred format of plain language summaries (PLSs) for patients and caregivers is infographic-based, followed by medium-complexity text-only summary.

Leia Martínez Silvagnoli and colleagues selected three peer-reviewed research articles on three chronic diseases representing different age groups:

  • psoriasis (younger population)
  • multiple sclerosis (middle-aged population)
  • rheumatoid arthritis (older population).

The authors developed four PLSs for each article: three text-only summaries written using high-, medium-, or low-complexity wording, and one infographic. The readability and presentation of the PLSs were assessed via an online survey, which was sent to organisations representing patients and caregivers for each of the three disease states. A total of 167 patients and caregivers completed the survey, of whom approximately 90% were women and over half had a university degree.

Patients and caregivers showed a clear preference for an infographic PLS format.

Infographic was the preferred PLS format for all three articles, and medium complexity (corresponding to a reading age of 14–17 years) was the preferred readability level. Participants commented that the graphical and medium-complexity PLSs were clear, easy to understand, and included all the relevant details in a concise way. The high-complexity PLSs were marked down for excessive use of scientific jargon, whilst the low-complexity PLSs were criticised for being oversimplified and lacking key statistical data. These preferences did not change regardless of education status, but younger participants generally preferred the infographic over the text-only format.

The authors note that although their study provides key insights into the optimal format for communicating medicine-based research to a nonexpert audience, further research is needed to capture preferences for the broader patient population, including those with other illnesses and different health literacy levels. With PLSs becoming more commonplace for medical research articles, we hope that audience preferences are taken into consideration to maximise understanding.


What format of PLSs do you typically develop or encounter?

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