Low health literacy… It could happen to you

Posted on Jul 9, 2014 in Board News, Center News, Events, Health Literacy

It may be hard to believe that nearly 9 out of 10 adults in our country have trouble understanding everyday health information.

And it’s not always because they have not had much education, are aging or poor, or don’t speak English as their native language. There are so many reasons why people—people like you and me—may have low health literacy.

Have you ever had a hard time making a health decision? Taking a medicine properly? Following your doctor’s advice? Navigating the halls of a hospital? The answer is probably yes. Pain, fear, fatigue, the effects of medicines … any of those can affect our ability to understand and act.

Conversely, someone who is diagnosed with a life-changing disease can quickly become fluent in its language, no matter how much¬—or how little—formal education that patient has had.

Health literacy is a state, not a trait—a memorable adage I attribute to Dr. Dean Schillinger from the University of California, San Francisco, who researches the subject extensively.

That’s why plain language for all of us is an important strategy in the effort to improve understanding, patient engagement, and, ultimately, health outcomes.

As a Center for Plain Language board member and someone whose day-to-day responsibilities include promoting plain language at Healthwise, where our mission is to help people make better health decisions, I recently was invited to provide plain language training to the Regional Health Literacy Coalition in Pittsburgh, PA. The Coalition started in 2010 with a goal to help improve health literacy in the western Pennsylvania region.

To be in a room with 40 professionals from hospitals, nonprofits, insurers, academic institutions, businesses, local government agencies, and other organizations, all of whom care deeply about improving the patient experience through clear communication… Talk about job candy! Or, more accurately, sustenance!

The meeting represented the first regional workshop for the Center for Plain Language, which is based in Washington, D.C. This nonprofit organization advocates for the use of clear communication and educates elected officials, businesses, and others who are interested in why plain language is important.

No matter the domain, you can use these best practices for plain language:

1. Know your audience.
2. Organize your message.
3. Write clearly.
4. Design for your audience.
5. Test with users.

The Center for Plain Language hopes to provide other workshops throughout the country in an effort to advance the plain-language mission, not just in the realm of health care, but throughout government, business, and other domains.

Interested? Contact me or the Center at centerforplainlanguage@gmail.com

And remember, plain language is for all of us. So whatever your message, it’s worth your while to make it plain.

Karen Baker, MHSAbout the author: Karen Baker is a Center for Plain Language board member, and Senior Vice President for Consumer Experience at Healthwise.