A written response can be a letter or the body of an email. The nature of the enquiry and the enquirer's preference may dictate how the response is delivered.
A letter is more formal and usually more suitable for patient-specific enquiries or a response to a department or committee. An email may be more convenient and preferred by the enquirer, however it can be more easily forwarded on to third parties without your knowledge and potentially used out of context. Be careful not to use sensitive information such as patient identifiers in the subject line or body of an email. Attaching a secured PDF of your letter to an email is a good way of ensuring the information will not be changed and makes it less likely that the information is used outside of the context it was provided in.
Check what procedures are in your workplace before deciding how to respond.
A comprehensive written response should include:
- a summary of the enquiry
- the response, including an introduction
- sources searched
- summary of findings, with comments on the quality of the information
- a conclusion that addresses the question and is supported by the findings
- references in standard format
- your name, job title and contact details.
Whether you use email or letter, writing your response in plain language will ensure that your reader can understand what you have written the first time they read it. Plain language is clear and concise, avoids the use of jargon or abbreviations and is unambiguous. Favour the active voice over the passive voice, use the first or second person (I, you, we), shorter sentences and precise words.
- The active voice gets straight to the point. In the past the passive voice was used in scientific writing in an effort to appear objective, however it is now recognised that overuse of the passive voice makes it harder for readers to understand scientific information. Passive sentences are usually longer than active sentences and may not indicate who is responsible for an action. Tailor your use of active or passive to the enquirer accordingly. For example: reduce the dose in renal impairment (active) and the dose is recommended to be reduced in renal impairment (passive).
- Avoid overly long sentences and try to keep to one idea per sentence. For example: Digoxin is a positive inotropic drug that can be given intravenously to increase the force of cardiac contractions and lower heart rate, but in cases of renal failure the dosages may be required to be lowered. When rewritten in shorter sentences it is easier to read: Digoxin is a positive inotropic drug that that can be given intravenously. It increases the force of cardiac contractions and lowers heart rate. Use lower doses in patients with renal failure.
- Eliminate unnecessary words but be sure not to leave out important information. Unnecessary words do not provide useful content. For example; Generally speaking, writers can basically rely in the main on certain fundamental techniques to structure their text. The end result was shorter in length than we had anticipated.
- Some examples of short and precise words:
- some, few, many instead of ‘a number of’
- enough instead of 'adequate number or amount’
- because, since instead of 'due to the fact that’,
- more than instead of 'in excess of'
For more information on grammar and language conventions refer to the Australian Style Manual or the Macquarie Dictionary. For more information about writing in plain language refer to the Australian Manual of Scientific Style (subscription required).