Good work is contagious: Catch this

Good work is contagious: Catch this



The e-mail arrived out of the blue. “I came across this great resource…thought you would find it of interest.”

Wow, yes.

The sender was a dear friend. The resource is From Patients Who Know: A Hospital Handbook. One look and I was hooked. “Must share this,” I thought.

Whatever sector you work in—health care, finance, technology, you name it—I urge you to check it out. Why? Because good work is contagious. This handbook ably demonstrates what we mean by clear communication. It’s easy to read, understand, and act on, and it consciously aims to transform passive readers into active participants.

Is it perfect? No. And that’s part of its charm. It’s a work-in-progress, co-designed for sharing and feedback.

The handbook was conceived and published by OpenLab, “a design and innovation shop dedicated to finding creative solutions that transform the way health care is delivered and experienced.” OpenLab is part of Ontario’s University Health Network (UHN). I think this is the first time I’ve encountered the term “anti-disciplinary culture.” I love it!

The project was developed in cooperation with 25 seniors, using a participatory design process. The contributors were residents of OASIS, a “naturally-occurring retirement community” in Kingston ON.

I am adding “naturally occurring retirement community” to my list of new favourite terms, right along with “anti-disciplinary culture.”

What do I admire about the handbook?

  • It’s clear and conversational.
  • The information is chunked into spacious, two-page spreads.
  • Key messages are reinforced with quotations and line drawings.
  • It’s interactive—designed to be scribbled in, torn apart, commented on, and revised.
  • The Creative Commons license means you can download the handbook and share it (with some restrictions). This is a gift to health care advocates and plain-language specialists everywhere.


At 87 pages, the length is a mixed blessing. Patients who are lucky enough to get a free printed copy are likely to appreciate the size and the 8.5 x 5.5-inch format. But 87 pages is a lot to read online and not ideally suited for on-demand printing at home. On the upside, those pages have been thoughtfully compiled in two-page spreads that print on 25 sheets of paper, double-sided. (I confess, I like my handbooks on paper. Please forgive me, trees.)

What would I change?

  • Some headings and figure labels are set in a cursive (handwriting) font that could be hard for readers to decipher, especially if English is not their first language or if they struggle to read text. For example, see the heading "How to be a good advocate" on page 8, and the labels on pages 20-21. I would switch to a more readable font.
  • I question the assumption that “as we age, it becomes increasingly important to bring a family member or friend along” to medical appointments (page 8). It’s helpful for patients of any age to have a well-informed ally. Relating the need to the patient’s age might cause some readers to resist rather than embrace the idea. Better to emphasize the positive message and beware of unconscious bias.
  • Look for every opportunity to explain the jargon that readers are likely to encounter. For example, it’s great that “Levels of Urgency” are clearly described on page 14, but it would be handy to note that hospital staff call this “triage”—and to include a pronunciation guide. This will prepare readers to understand the label “triage nurse” on page 18, and to recognize the term when they hear or see it at the hospital.


As a lover of plain language, I love, love, love “The Language of Hospitals” (pages 23-28). Check out the definitions. They brilliantly illustrate how even “plain” words can be misunderstood, and how important it is to check assumptions and invite your target audience to ask clarifying questions. To that end, I would highlight the message on page 23 that says “if there is something you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask for a better explanation.” To drive home the point, I would reframe it in the positive: “If there is anything you don’t understand, ask what it means. Be brave.”

It’s hard for non-experts to feel brave and curious when faced with specialized information in an unfamiliar environment. Bravo to the OpenLab team and to their contributors at OASIS for showing how clear communication can work.

Thank you to project lead, Tai Huynh, for responding quickly and cheerfully to my email request for printed copies of the handbook.  Copies are available from OpenLab at $15 CAD, including shipping.

And thank you to my friend Audrey, who sent the link that inspired this post. Sharing Rocks!

From Patients Who Know: A Hospital Handbook. Pass it on.

About the Author

Joanne Wise uses plain-language strategies to help clients think through their ideas and communicate results with clarity and impact—online and in print.