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Plain Language in Healthcare

  • What is health literacy?
  • Why is health literacy an issue for health communication professionals?
  • Can better communication strategies improve health?
  • Where can I learn more about health literacy?

Literacy is defined most simply as the ability to read and write. We can think of literacy as the ability to understand and communicate information. In this context, it is useful to think of health literacy as the ability to understand and communicate health information.

The Institute of Medicine’s recent report defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” In any situation, a person decides what to do based on an understanding of facts, issues, options for action, and consequences. An example from the Ask Me 3 education program illustrates why this understanding is important in a health context. Providers should encourage patients to ask the questions and understand the answers.

  • What is my main problem?
  • What do I need to do?
  • Why is it important for me to do this?

To get the best health outcomes, health-related decisions should be based on clear and correct understanding of relevant health information and services. There are many reasons why this often does not happen. People who are not literate in general will likely not be health literate. People with cultural backgrounds different from the society-at-large in which they live may have attitudes or customs at odds with conventional health practices. People using the health care system may not be able to navigate the system and find the right resources. They must deal with its multiple funding sources, a varied collection of care-giving facilities, as well as public and private organizations, Clearly, there are many challenges to educate, prepare, and assist people in obtaining the resources they need to make good health decisions. Clear communication, in plain language, about health information and services will help create and promote health literacy.

Further reading

  • The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion hosts the Health Literacy Improvement page, which links to many useful health literacy tools and reports and other Department of Health and Human Service agency health literacy resources.

  • MedlinePlus offers guidelines and resources to help you create easy-to-read health materials.

  • The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality prepared this summary of Literacy and Health Outcomes. You can get a printed copy of the full report free from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse. Call 800-358-9295 and ask for Evidence Report/Technology Assessment No. 87, Literacy and Health Outcomes.

  • The Health Literacy Site for the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) includes health and literacy resources and HRSA’s health literacy activities. HRSA directs programs that improve the Nation’s health by expanding access to comprehensive, quality health care for all Americans.

  • Medicines in My Home is an interactive and educational program about the safe and effective use of over-the-counter medicines. This easy-to-read program was developed by the Food and Drug Administration with Maryland’s Montgomery County Public School system and in cooperation with the National Council On Patient Information and Education.

  • The Plain Language Thesaurus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers plain language equivalents to medical terms and phrases.

Bibliographic resources about health literacy