Health Design Challenge Could Help VA to Make the Grade on Plain Language

Nightingale Wins Overall Design

The US Government recently invited designers and developers to redesign the patient health record. The goal of the Health Design Challenge was to improve the presentation and usability of the record currently used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other groups. Over 230 entries were submitted. The winning entries used dynamic content, informative graphics and, of course, plain language.

The VA health record definitely needs a makeover. It’s a plain text file that provides a laundry list of the patient’s medical data. But it doesn’t explain why the patient needs to take certain medications or what their lab results mean. And it doesn’t provide additional information that would help the patient, caregiver or doctor manage the patient’s health.

How did the winning entries use plain language to make the health record more effective? They eliminated jargon, used simple English and wrote short sentences. The first place winner for best overall design, Nightingale by gravitytank, made the content understandable and kept it simple. As they stated on their entry: “Each test and result is explained in plain English.” All of the winning entries provided clear instructions that a patient or caregiver can easily understand and follow.

The new patient health record will combine elements of several of the entries. This gives the VA a chance to improve their “plain language” grade. (The Department received an F on the first Plain Writing Act report card released by the Center for Plain Language.) Will the new health record designs with their focus on plain language help them the VA get a passing grade? We certainly hope so.

You can view the winning entries at Health Design Challenge.

By Ellen Buttolph

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Start-Ups Try Their Hand at Simplification

Simple Credit CardA recent article in the New York Times profiled Josh Reich, a software engineer and founder of Simple, a new online banking start-up. The company has joined the growing ranks of start-ups disrupting business as usual in the banking and health care industries.

“Banks make money by keeping customers confused,” Mr. Reich said. In response, Simple and others are hoping to attract customers with… clarity. Simple lets customers search their accounts with plain English commands like “Show me how much I spent on dinner last month in Portland,” or “Show me how much money I spent on gifts in December.” Customers can see transactions plotted on a map or search for all transactions in a particular state or country, something that would be difficult with a traditional bank. (more…)

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Promoting Plain Language at CDC – Checklist and Messaging

Our colleague, Cynthia Baur, plain language lead at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just posted some new tools you might find useful.  They can help large, complex organizations like government agencies make plain language everyday practice.

We all know how easy it is for broadcast emails, memos and other notices to get lost in the workday flow of information. (more…)

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FDA Celebrates Plain Writing Act

peanut butter

Is your peanut butter safe?  Is it safe to order drugs online?  The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates products that we use everyday – food, human and animal drugs, dietary supplements, medical devices, vaccines, tobacco – the list sometimes seems endless.

The FDA shares information about these products every day, so it’s essential that they write clearly so you can understand and use their information easily to protect your health. (more…)

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How Much is Plain Language Worth?

Writing for Dollars book coverJoe Kimble, professor of law at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, has just finished his long awaited new book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law. Carolina Academic Press, which also published his earlier book Lifting the Fog of Legalese, is the publisher.

The book sets out the elements of plain language, debunks the 10 biggest myths about it, summarizes 40 historical highlights, and summarizes 50 (no less) studies on the benefits of plain language for everyone–readers, writers, businesses, and government agencies.


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“Summary of Benefits and Coverage” Brings Clarity to Health Plan

At last, consumers will have a “Summary of Benefits and Coverage” as a standardized, plain language tool to understand their health plans. Under a rule announced last week by HHS, health insurers are now required to provide consumers with clear, consistent, and comparable summary information.  Here’s the link:

Testing by Consumers’ Union showed that consumers could use the standardized health information, but the two scenarios about having a baby and treating Type 2 diabetes gave them a better sense of what was covered and the value of health insurance. These scenarios, formatted much like the Nutrition Facts label with plain language a key component, show consumers what proportion of the cost of care a health insurance policy or plan would cover and will help consumers compare across health plans they are considering. One test participant talked about the scenarios as “putting furniture in an empty house” so she could see how she would “live” in the policy.

“All consumers, for the first time, will really be able to clearly comprehend the sometimes confusing language insurance plans often use in marketing,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “This will give them a new edge in deciding which plan will best suit their needs and those of their families or employees.”

The new explanations, which will be available beginning, or soon after, September 23, 2012, will be a critical resource for the roughly 150 million Americans with private health insurance today.

Stakeholders as the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) and a working group composed of health insurance-related consumer advocacy organizations, health insurers, health care professionals, patient advocates including those representing people with limited English proficiency, and others helped to develop the Summary and scenarios. The Center for Plain Language wrote a letter to OMB to support the approval of this important plain language document.

Let us know how you like the Summary!

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What’s Covered? Clarity in Health Insurance Disclosures

Health Insurance

by Deborah. S. Bosley

This week, I’ll be discussing two new initiatives that could require health information to comply with plain language standards: 1) health benefit information provided by insurance companies, and 2) a new form from the Department of Health and Human Services designed to make it easier to understand health information. Both initiatives are asking for public comment. (more…)

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Why blame the patient?

by Joanne Locke

On March 1, the Washington Post published an article by Sandra Boodman’s on the need for clear health communication: “When Understanding is Critical”

She describes the some serious problems that can result when patients don’t understand how to comply with their doctor’s instructions.  But she seems to be  blaming the victim.  Rather than point out how many people have different levels of literacy – such as 90 million at the basic and below basic skill level – it’s important to recognize that we ALL occasionally have difficulty understanding health information:  especially when it affects us or someone we love.


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We’re Everywhere, We’re Everywhere!

The past two weeks have been filled with news about the Center for Plain Language. The Wall Street Journal mentioned the Center or our ClearMark Awards in two articles:

1. JULY 6, 2010 Universal Precautions: A Model for Health Literacy? By Laura Landro

A Healthwise interactive conversation on low back pain recently won an national award from the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit that advocates the use of clear communication by businesses and government bodies. (more…)

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Dr. Doubletalk: Video 3 in Our Demand to Understand Campaign

The last time you were in the hospital, did you quickly and nervously sign everything you were handed? Did you really understand that consent form, or the information on your medications, or your liability waiver, or any of the dozens of forms you have to sign when you’re hospitalized?

If so, our third video, Dr. Doubletalk, should sound familiar. Blah, Blah, Blah, sign here. Don’t be bullied or scared by the hospital or by the authority of the doctor. You are in charge of your own medical interventions. (more…)

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Center for Plain Language (

Printed April 20, 2014


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