Teaching Martians to make a sandwich–How Technical Writers can improve patient safety

There’s a well-known exercise to experienced technical writers: How do you teach a Martian to make a sandwich. It’s so well known that we talk about it as an exercise in best practices for user experience and modern instructional design.

In the last few years, this exercise has become a hot topic in medical school programs that are creating new degree programs focused on improving patient safety.

Many schools like Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and George Washington University have launched master’s programs in health care quality. Patient safety is a critical component of these programs. The programs are small and just getting started, but at Northwestern, one approach has been to use this exercise to teach students better ways to communicate instructions to patients:

in order to learn about how challenging it is to communicate medical directions, students practice explaining how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to an instructor pretending to be a Martian — someone who doesn’t have familiarity with basic English and the mechanics of peanut butter jars and bagged bread … “Invariably the student will write, ‘open the bag of bread,’” Woods said. “And so he rips the bottom rather than doing the little twist-tie thing.”

It’s meant to illustrate that some directions might not be carried out as the medical professional intended.

It turns out that this disconnect is not just between doctors and patients but between doctors and other doctors as well:

when she was trying to convince liver transplant surgeons to use a different combination of painkillers to cut down on side effects, she found that, even though she distributed a clearly articulated set of directions, surgeons weren’t following her directions

Creating clear instructions is a challenge for any technical writer. Understanding the user, their situation, their experience, and their journey is essential to their success. And I, for one, find it encouraging that there’s a whole new place where experienced, professional technical writers can contribute!

If you want to read more about how medical schools are changing, head on over for the full article at Stat.