Recommendations for designing clinical practice guideline documents

Clinical practice guidelines inform providers what the latest evidence says about what's the most effective and safe way to maintain a patient's health.

Unfortunately these documents aren't always the easiest to read, nor do they follow information design best practices. As part of a work experience, I conducted a hueristic review on a clinical practice guideline document for an organization in Alberta. The output of that review was a set of ten evidence-informed recommendations for the organization to consider when designing future documents:

1. Use plain language wherever possible.

Even if this document is strictly for healthcare professionals, plain language is going to make it an easier read, increase information uptake and make the document easier to scan – something providers often do.

2. Distill the guidelines into “IF ____, THEN ____” statements, then give details to back them up.

Research show’s that experienced physicians drift toward problem solving through a series of if-then statements. Giving them content in this form may make it easier to absorb the new knowledge, but the factual information should still be there for new learners or those who are interested.

3. Make it easy for the user to jump to content they are interested in.

If the document is going to be hosted as a PDF on a website, include hyperlinks to external resources and other places within the document. You want to give the user as much control over their experience with the CPG document as possible.

4. Give the reader an idea of what they are going to find in this document.

CPG documents are likely lengthy and not all this content may be relevant to someone. Including a short summary of the document (purpose, audience, etc) and a table of contents will make the document seem less ambiguous to the reader and make it more clear why reading this will be a benefit.

5. Give the user only enough information to make your point, but don’t make them look for it.

Use of visuals (flowcharts, algorithms) and objects (icons, callout text) will make it easier for the user to recognize what content is important and what information they are looking at.

6. Be a minimalist.

People’s eyes are drawn to colours, visuals and large white spaces. If you have a piece of information you want to stand out, adding more colour and flash to that isn’t always the right answer. More often than not, it’s more effective to make the content around it less flashy, or move things around so that it’s more obviously important.

7. Create ‘chunks’ of information so that the reader can quickly scan the content.

These chunks should be created through spacing and clear labelling. If a paragraph isn’t working towards making the same point as the previous paragraph, put some space between the two and give them a short, descriptive label.

8. Be consistent with the font size and weight of the titles.

This will make it easier for readers to navigate the document by clearly marking out the types of information being discussed. Consider the following as an informal guideline for creating : Use three different sizes of fonts (24, 16, 11) and bold all titles.

9. Include a lot of visuals, but don’t rely on them to make your point.

Visuals and diagrams don’t just belong in summaries. They help communicate key concepts quickly and make them memorable. However, the point of the visual isn’t to replace the content, but to augment it. For example, steps in a process should be listed as text, but a diagram depicting the process should also be provided.

10. Give providers tools to use in their practice.

Arm the provider with information or tools to use when talking with their patients. Try including tips on how to talk to patients about the subject or statistics and diagrams that support the guideline.

Sources
Gagliardi, A. R., Brouwers, M. C., Palda, V. A., Lemieux-Charles, L., & Grimshaw, J. M. (2011). How can we improve guideline use? A conceptual framework of implementability. Implementation Science, 6(1), 26.
Green, L. A., & Seifert, C. M. (2005). Translation of research into practice: why we can’t “just do it”. J Am Board Fam Pract, 18(6), 541-545.
Horn, R. (1967). Developing Instructional Materials and Procedures.
Iedema, R. (2003). Multimodality, resemiotization: Extending the analysis of discourse as multi-semiotic practice. Visual communication, 2(1), 29-57.
Nielsen, J. (1994). 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/

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Hi there.

I'm an information designer living in Toronto, Ontario.

I'm currently finishing up my master's degree in Design for Health at OCAD University.

My approach to anything design-related in healthcare is underscored by three main ideas:

  1. Healthcare is a complex system.
  2. Complexity isn't something to shy away from.
  3. Personal experiences humanize complexity.

I love data that doesn't fit within traditional, quantitative data visualizations. While those sort of visualizations certainly have their time and place, there's so much more to the data that's being left out.

If you are interested in working together, please email me at chris@designingrice.com.

Or send me a message on linkedin or twitter

For more details about my education and work, here is my CV.

Thanks.

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