Plain Talk: The Case for Health Literacy

Do your readers understand what you’re telling them about their healthcare?

Maybe not. According to the Center for Health Literacy, most health-related information is written at a 10th-grade reading level. But nearly half of the American public has a hard time understanding information developed above the eighth-grade reading level. If your readers don’t understand what they’re reading, they can’t make the right choices about their healthcare.

To achieve health literacy in your communications, you can use a number of tactics:

  • Speak in plain, simple language. For example, say “medicine” instead of “medication,” “use” rather than “utilize,” “before” instead of “prior to.”
  • Keep sentences generally short and conversational. Use “we” and “you” and write in the active, not passive, voice: “We’ll call you if we need to talk about your test results.”
  • When you use medical terms, define them. For example, if you’re talking about hypertension, make sure to say it’s high blood pressure. Explain that a mammogram is an X-ray of the breast to check for signs of cancer.
  • Know your audience. Make sure you write about what matters to them. Your stories should include examples that are culturally appropriate.
  • Be positive. Negative words can be discouraging. “Look for other flavors instead of salt to season your food, like lemon juice or fresh herbs” can work better than “Don’t use salt.”
  • Organize your information in short chunks. Divide your material in parts. Can some of your story be told in bullet points? What about a step-by-step approach? Use informative heads and subheads to break up your copy.
  • Tell your readers where they can get more information. Let them know where to follow up – a website, phone number, book – for more about the subject.

For more information, visit the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective.

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