When communication isn’t clear, the result is burden. In health care this burden is often borne by someone who is already carrying rocks in their pack (feeling sick, worried or exhausted). Now, in addition to missing work, paying for medications and doing what it takes to heal, energy must go to deciphering unnecessarily complex information. Common examples include care instructions, medical bills or conversations with providers (“What did the doctor say?”).
When you consider that only one in 10 adults has proficient health literacy, burden is a way of life. It also leads to harm. Not understanding what dose to take or what symptoms to act on or what level of care to seek can physically harm – even kill someone. Emotional consequences are harmful in their own right: shame from not understanding; stress resulting from bills for care not covered by insurance; general apathy towards health, the result of losing confidence in the ability to get needs met.
Ours is a complex care system. Clear communication isn’t going to fix it, but it can help alleviate the burden and prevent harm. Plain language reduces complexity to align with users’ skills. Now your audience doesn’t have to pedal uphill. They have more capacity for other things, like the important business of healing.
Here are a few principles to follow:
- Use plain language. If the point is to engage someone, start by helping them understand. Without understanding, there’s no engagement. Plain “everyday” language is the key.
- Avoid communication overload. When too much information is coming across, none of it stands out. Limit content to a few key points. It’s much easier to digest this way.
- Communicate the most important information first. Make the main point obvious and drill down from there. Picture an iceberg. What information should sit above the water line?
- Confirm understanding. Never assume. Ask them to explain what they heard or read in their own words. If it wasn’t clear, it’s time to try again.
With health care spending expected to close in on 20 percent of gross domestic product in the coming decade, can we afford to not improve how we communicate? Applying these principles is free. Research suggests plain language can even result in cost savings. It only requires a commitment to truly engage patients. October is Health Literacy Month. There’s no better time than the present.
About the author: Jennifer Pearce is the founder of Plain Language Health, a consultancy specializing in co-producing content and experiences that patients can easily understand and act on. She serves on the board of directors at the Center for Plain Language in Washington, D.C.