All writers want their message to be understood—but for communicators in the medical field, the health and well-being of readers is on the line.
What’s Health Literacy?
Health literacy is the ability to understand and use health information to make informed choices and access medical services.
A person who struggles to read or comprehend medical information may have trouble:
- Finding a provider and scheduling or attending appointments
- Sharing their health history or explaining symptoms
- Filling out complex medical forms
- Following discharge instructions, including dietary recommendations
- Taking medications as prescribed
- Practicing self-care and managing chronic conditions
Someone with communication barriers may feel embarrassed to admit they can’t understand. They may be too intimidated to ask questions. Experiencing stress during a health situation—like after a diagnosis or during a visit to the emergency department—also can reduce your ability to understand information and make choices.
Low Health Literacy in the U.S.
Only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Those who struggle most are typically adults over age 65 without a high school diploma who have no insurance or receive Medicare/Medicaid.
Lifetime Impact of Low Health Literacy
Poor health literacy is linked to:
- Higher hospitalization rates
- Higher risk of complications
- Longer recovery times
- Poorer health outcomes
- Shorter lifespan
A person’s health literacy level may also affect their satisfaction with the care they receive.
What This Means for Healthcare Marketers
Common goals for professional healthcare communicators—like guiding patients to make appointments, advertising available treatment options, and building a brand that’s seen as a trusted, compassionate source of information and care—can be impacted by health literacy barriers.
Write for Readability
The first step to understandable content is researching the health literacy levels and demographic information of your target audience. Then, content can be tailored accordingly using a combination of tools and strategies.
Use Grade-Level Calculators
Readability calculators (such as the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests, which are built into Microsoft Word) use algorithms to estimate the grade level of a piece of writing. These algorithms consider:
- Word length
- Number of syllables in a word
- Sentence length
- Use of contractions
You can also take advantage of free, online readability tools like Hemingway editor. It not only calculates the grade level of your content, but also points out complex sentences and instances of passive voice.
Where Readability Calculators Come Up Short
Grade-level calculators can help you evaluate the readability of your content. But, keep in mind that readability test results can be skewed by certain healthcare vocabulary. Medical terms—like “radiofrequency ablation” and “catheterization”—increase the grade level of your writing, but if you’re describing these procedures, it’s necessary to include their names. Don’t sacrifice the technical term for a word that has a lower readability level but doesn’t accurately describe the subject.
Write with Clarity
Writing clearly with plain language makes you a strong, effective communicator. When your readers have barriers to comprehension, writing simply makes it easier for them to understand—and take action.
To simplify your content:
- Write with a conversational, user-focused approach. Speak directly to the reader. (“Your doctor will ask questions about your health history and your current symptoms during your first visit.”)
- Use common terms instead of medical terms (i.e., write “cancer doctor” instead of, or along with, “oncologist”) or provide context clues (“Your oncologist is a doctor with training and experience to diagnose and treat cancer”).
- Break down complex medical concepts into short words and sentences. Add definitions or provide examples after complex terms. (“Your doctor may recommend a bone density scan. This is an imaging test that measures the strength of your bones.”)
- Avoid clichés and idioms that aren’t familiar across cultures (such as “clean bill of health”).
- Write in active voice (“Your doctor will help you find the best hearing aid for you.”) instead of passive voice (“The best hearing aid for you will be selected by your doctor.”).
When you organize information, start with the simplest concepts and build up to the complex.
Use Person-First Language
Use People-First Language [PDF] to show that you view your readers as people, not medical conditions. For example, say “a person with diabetes,” instead of “a diabetic.”
When possible, include ways your audience can be active in their own care. Tell them to bring a loved one to their appointment to help them remember all of the information they receive. Or, suggest patients write down all of their questions before their consultation.
Web Writing for Everyone
Do readers with high literacy levels and specialized knowledge, like your physicians or administrators, prefer more complex writing? The answer, according to a study by the Nielsen Norman Group, is no. Everyone appreciates simplicity and scannability on the web. Feel confident you’re representing your organization in a professional manner—and reaching the widest audience when you make your content as straightforward as possible.
Learn more about ensuring the accessibility of your web content