In this post, we conclude our exploration on health literacy and look at how healthcare marketers can serve people with low health literacy.

Health information is complicated, and physicians often don’t have the time to explain everything. Instead, written content must fill the gap. People have more access to health related information than ever, and as health marketers, we can leverage print and online channels to deliver health information.

However, people with low health literacy can have a lot of trouble with written content. Additionally, people with low health literacy can easily be overwhelmed by too much information. And because of the stigma related to illiteracy, they may be afraid to ask questions.

The way you write and present information can make a big difference in how people understand. In this article, we’ll look at the ways in which plain language and good design can empower people with low health literacy.

What is plain language?

People aren’t going to read your content if they can’t understand it—and if they can’t understand it, they won’t benefit from it. This is especially true for people with low health literacy. At LIFT, we solve this by writing in plain language.

What is plain language? Simply put, plain language is a writing strategy with three central goals:

1. Help the reader find the information they need,
2. Make sure the reader understands that information, and
3. Enable the reader to act on that information.

If you look closely, you’ll see that the plain language goals align exactly with the goals of your health content.

How to use plain language

Follow these tips when you write your next piece of healthcare content.

First, make it brief, and if you can’t, make it easy to follow. When there’s too much information, it can easily overwhelm readers. Try to be brief whenever possible and remove unnecessary information. This will help reduce confusion and in turn improve comprehension.

Of course, it’s not always possible to keep it brief. This is not all that surprising given the amount of information you need to communicate. If you have a large amount of content to deliver, actively work to simplify your writing.

Simplify by cutting out the jargon. The average person in the US reads at an 8th-grade level. But, when you break it down, over 20% of Americans read at a 5th-grade level or lower. Keeping your writing simple makes your content accessible to people with low literacy.

There will be times when you need to use special medical terms. Rather than assuming prior knowledge, always make it a point to define medical terms in a simple way.

Use plain language to inspire action

We use content to inspire people to think, reflect, and do. After all, the goal of any healthcare information is to bring about a new, healthy behavior.

You can do this by engaging your readers directly with your writing. Write as if you’re talking directly to your readers by using “you.” When you write this way, the content feels more personal and inviting.

At LIFT, we combine this with a method we use to engage readers called “conversation starters.” These take the form of questions that address a user’s particular need.

Designing for access and delight

“You have to convince people they want to read your content.”

Information could be easy to read, but if it’s unapproachable, none of that really matters. Design and organization play a huge role in making your healthcare content approachable for people with low health literacy.

Imagine this scenario. You’re uncomfortable with health information, and you’ve been handed a piece of reading. As you take a look, a wall of text stares back at you. From the first scan, you can’t quite see what you should look for, after all, everything looks the same. Rather than spending time to dig for something you know, you just move on, nodding to your caretaker when they ask you if you understood. In reality, the text was written in such a way that was easy to read if only you had started.

It turns out, our best intentions of writing the content failed, not because the text was too difficult but because it was unapproachable. How a patient understands information may be vastly different from how a medical professional understands it, so your content needs to make sense from the patient’s perspective.

We like to do this by giving the reader a variety of ways to access the information by designing multiple points of entry. The following methods are all to be used judiciously, as too much can quickly diminish their benefits.

Support key points using relevant images or graphics. People are naturally drawn to images rather than words, and it helps to have pictures that illustrate the information you’re trying to provide.

Create useful headings that quickly let people know what to look for. Readers can use these to quickly scan through your content and identify the information that will be most helpful for them. Also, headings will help your readers organize and better retain information.

Color or format keywords to call attention to important details. We live in a world full of noise and it’s helpful when important details stand out and catch our attention. Use different colors or formatting to draw the reader’s eye.

Use bulleted or numbered lists to break up the wall of text. Bullets function in similar ways to headings and formatted keywords. They help readers find and focus on key information.

But what about people with high health literacy?

If we focus on people with low health literacy, wouldn’t that be detrimental to people who don’t need it? Will people think we are “dumbing it down” too much? The answer is no. In fact, everyone benefits from having health content that’s easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to use.

Here’s a wonderful example from A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences by Whitney Quesenbery and Sarah Horton. During a project to design a university website for different kinds of students, the research revealed that the website’s primary users—teens, older adults, and people with weaker English skills—all had vastly different reading capabilities and needs.

In the study, teens tended to be scanners and wanted to find information easily. Older adults were careful and read every word. People with weak English skills generally read slowly and skipped information they didn’t understand.

When they applied this research to content development, however, they came up with remarkably similar recommendations for all three groups. They found that they needed to provide easy-to-read information regardless of the type of reader. All three groups would benefit from content that’s easily read, understood, and used.

Who are you writing for?

Ultimately, addressing health literacy by using plain language and solid design principles comes back to having a good understanding of your audience and their needs.

When we create health content, we make sure to go back to the personas we built from the very start. They helped guide our entire process, from the type of content we wrote about to the way the information was designed. Check out our persona building eBook and use our tools to help your team develop content to serve all your patients.

Further reading:

Writing for the Web Versus Writing for Print: Are They Really So Different?

A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences –
Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery

Health literacy: a challenge for American patients and their health care providers

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