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: Let’s Be Health Literacy Heroes, This Month and Always

Let’s Be Health Literacy Heroes, This Month and Always

Managing Editor

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!


Heros -5


Improving health literacy goes hand in hand with using plain language. 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, important elements of plain language include:


  • Organizing information so that the most important points come first
  • 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 part 5, Communicating in a Changing Health Care Landscape.

Are We Thinking Clearly About Health Literacy?



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The Healthy(ist) blog is a platform to share, learn about, and debate topics related to public and social health, scientific research, health communications, and behavior change.
We invite and encourage anyone interested in current public health and health communication trends and issues to join MMG's contributing bloggers in adding their voice to the ongoing discussion about how we can advance health, together.


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