In journalism, the “lede” is the first part of a news story. A good lede will entice the reader to read more. It contains the key points and gives the general idea of the article. Ledes are also crucial in medicine. As a graduate student in journalism and a general practitioner, I can appreciate the value of ledes in both fields.
When healthcare professionals communicate with each other, we use ledes all the time. Let’s say a doctor is working in a clinic and is sending a university student to the emergency department. The doctor is concerned that the student could have meningitis. The patient—let’s call him John Doe—is confused and has a fever. His blood pressure is low, but his heart rate is high. After calling 911, the doctor calls the emergency department to communicate that the patient is coming in an ambulance. The charge nurse at the emergency department answers the phone. Consider the following two scenarios and which has a better lede?
“I just sent an unstable, 21-year-old male to your department because I’m concerned he could have meningitis. His blood pressure is 86/52 and his heart rate is 120. His temperature is 102.2, he is confused, and his neck is stiff. His name is John Doe and he will be there in 5 minutes. The ambulance just left with him.”
“A patient came into my office this afternoon. His name is John Doe, and he is 21. He started feeling unwell yesterday after he got home from basketball practice. His roommates brought him to my office today because John became confused. When I checked John’s blood pressure, it was low, and his heart rate was high. His neck was stiff and his temperature was up, so I think it could be meningitis. He just left here in an ambulance and he should arrive to you soon.”
In the first example, the charge nurse knows from the first sentence that John’s condition is serious. Already, she is thinking about the next steps, who she needs to notify and the supplies they will need. The word “unstable” gives a hint about John’s level of sickness. The specific numbers describing his blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature give an idea of the severity of his illness.
In the second example, it is not clear until the end of the paragraph that the doctor is thinking that John could have meningitis. A couple of unnecessary sentences may not seem like that much extra time, but in medicine, time can be crucial, especially in emergencies.
Developing good ledes, whether in journalism or in medicine, is a skill. The more you do it, the better you get. It takes time, but in the end, it is worth it. In journalism, a strong lede means that the reader gets to the end of your story. In medicine, a strong lede makes for clear, efficient communication, helping to save time, or maybe even a life.