October is health
literacy month. With the health insurance exchange
portion of the Patient
Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the midst of
rolling out to the public and the rest of the ACA's provisions set
to launch in just a few months, we need plain talk about health
care now more than ever.
The Healthyist will spend the next few weeks talking about
health literacy, the importance of clear communication, and the
steps that we as health communicators need to take to ensure we are
doing the best job we can when it comes to communicating health
information to a variety of audiences.
This year's health literacy month theme is "Be a Health Literacy
Hero." If you think using of the word hero is lofty or that it
overstates the importance of advocating for health literacy, you're
wrong. It is easy to assume that your audience will know what
you're saying or understand what you have written because it is
hard to un-know what you know. And likewise, your audience doesn't
know what it doesn't know. We have to be the ones to fill that gap.
That's what makes appropriate and successful health communication
such a challenge. Figuring out how to do that is what makes you a
health literacy hero!
Improving health literacy goes hand in hand with using plain
The Plain Writing Act was signed by President Obama on October
13, 2010, and it requires federal agencies to communicate using
language that the public can use and understand. Let's say that
again: communicate using language that the public can use
and understand. And that's never more important than when we're
talking about health and health care options.
When we talk about plain language, it's important to note what
it's not. Writing in plain language does not mean talking down to
your audience. It doesn't mean using a bunch of pictures instead of
words. According to
health.gov, important elements of plain language include:
- Organizing information so that the most important points come
- Breaking complex information into understandable chunks
- Using simple language and defining technical terms
- Using the active voice
Although we are health communicators, most of us have also been
patients or at the very least we know someone who has been a
patient. Maybe you've been at the side of your
elderly mother while she was in the hospital or had to take
care of an ill child. How confusing was the information? Did you
understand the options? Was it overwhelming? Even highly educated
people get tripped up by health information. The words are
confusing, and the jargon is out of control.
We can do better. We have to do better. It's our duty to ensure
that every word we write, every brochure we produce, and every
website we create takes plain language principles into
consideration and keeps the audience in mind.
So, during this month of health literacy awareness, let's give
people health information and tools they can use and understand.
And let's do this not because it's a nice idea or because it's the
law. Let's do it because to do otherwise is to shortchange the
people we claim we work so hard for. And we're better than that.
Let's be health literacy heroes.
This is part 1 of the Healthyist's series on Health Literacy. For
more on our thoughts on health literacy, read part 2,
Are We Thinking Clearly About
Health Literacy?, part 3,
Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus: Differences in
Conversational Styles Between the Sexes and What it Means for
Health Communications, and part 4,
The Heart of Health Literacy: Motivating People to Act, and
Communicating in a Changing Health Care
Thinking Clearly About Health Literacy?