Making Numbers Make Sense
Thus far, our blog has been primarily focused on the use of plain language (words) and information design (words and design). However, much of the information that needs to be written in plain language includes numbers, particularly health information. This week’s blog is devoted to “making numbers make sense,” and is written by our guest columnist, Helen Osborne. Helen will be speaking on this topic at the “Revolutionary Ideas in Bio Communications” conference in June http://www.bioconf.org/ Here’s Helen’s post:
Health information is filled with numbers. Patients and families need to understand numbers to comprehend concepts of quantity, time, and risk. But many people have problems. Without exception, every article and book I’ve read on this topic states that a vast majority of the lay public struggles to understand and use numbers. Here are a dozen (12) ways to help make numbers make sense:
- Confirm which measurement system to use, such as ounces or grams.
- Mark how high to fill a drinking cup. Use a divided plate to show proportion. As needed, adapt “ad hoc” measuring tools such as soda bottle caps.
- Compare to known quantities, such as “4 ounces of meat, about the same size as a deck of playing cards” or “5 pounds, about the same as a bag of flour.”
- Show pictures, such as thermometers of a normal temperature versus high fever.
- Schedule medication around a person’s daily habits, such as “Take 1 pill after brushing your teeth in the morning and at night.”
- Together, draw hands on an analog clock to show proper dosing time.
- Include pictures or icons representing time, such as sunrise and sunset.
- Use “gutters” in comics to show passage of time.
- Provide context, such as stating what a person’s cholesterol level is this year versus last or in relation to others of the same age.
- When possible, state risk as absolute (a new drug reduces a person’s risk from 2 out of 10 to 1 out of 10), not relative (the new drug reduces a person’s risk by 50%).
- As indicated, frame results as positive (95% of patients improve), not negative (5% of patients do not improve or get worse).
- Define and use consistent wording such as “common,” “rare,” and “often.”
- Be flexible about writing rules. Really, it’s okay to write “5″ rather than “five.”
Let’s make this a “baker’s dozen.” Here’s a 13th how-to idea:
Ways to learn more:
- Apter AJ et al (2008), “Numeracy and Communication with Patients: They Are Counting on Us,” AJ Gen Intern Med23(12):2117-24.
- Golbeck AL, Ahlers-Schmidt CR, Paschal AM, and Dismuke SE (2005), “A Definition and Operational Framework for Health Numeracy,” American Journal of Preventative Medicine29(4):375-376.
- Osborne H, (2008) “In Other Words‚Ä¶Pediatric Cough and Cold Medicine: Helping Patients Make Sense of Information from the FDA.” On Call Magazine,http://www.healthliteracy.com/article.asp?PageID=8198
- Osborne H, (2007) “In Other Words‚Ä¶Health Numeracy: How Do Patients Handle the Concept of Quantity When It Relates to Their Health?” On Call Magazine,http://www.healthliteracy.com/article.asp?PageID=6509
- Osborne H, (2004) “In Other Words‚Ä¶Working With Numbers,” On Call Magazine, http://www.healthliteracy.com/article.asp?PageID=3745
- Osborne H, (2004) Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett. http://www.jbpub.com/catalog/0763745502/
- Osborne H, (2002) “In Other Words‚Ä¶What They Need to Know‚Ä¶Communicating About Risk,” On Call Magazine, http://www.healthliteracy.com/artic
You can find more information on health literacy from Helen’s site at www.healthliteracy.com. Much of this blog posting was first posted as a Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tip and is now reprinted with permission.