How healthy is your reader’s health literacy?

When’s the last time you googled something about your health? My guess would be fairly recently. It’s the third most common online activity. Did you easily understand what  you read? Many health web sites do a good job of presenting clear, actionable information. However, a lot of health information out there would not pass the test of clear writing.

What’s more, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 60% of adults and 88% of seniors are not health literate. What does this mean? It means they cannot:

  1. Confidently and knowledgeably access, understand, evaluate and communicate information that is related to their health (and the health of their loved ones).
  2. Find their way through the often-complex health care systems across Canada.
  3. Decode the information that we all need to live healthy, productive lives.

It’s a vicious circle. People with low health literacy are more like to have poor health. They are also more likely to misuse medication, misunderstand medical directions. These mistakes and misunderstandings increase the burden on the health care system – requiring more time, more money and more emergency care.

How can you help challenged readers better understand what they need to do to be healthy? Here are some quick tips from the clear writing world:

1. Grab your audience’s attention. Use interesting headlines, a catchy image and a good hook. Watch out for slow-loading photos or multimedia that require extra clicks.

2. Find an angle that readers can easily relate to. Remember, people love good stories. If your story is long, rely on the principles of narrative journalism: find a main character and build a dramatic structure.

3. Remember: positive messages are empowering. If you are writing about a particularly dark or challenging medical issue, such as Alzheimer’s disease or obesity, offer possible solutions or a place to go for help. Offering a spark of hope can make your reader feel more empowered.

4. Write conversationally. If your media and topic allow, use humour and a personal voice. This will help you connect with your reader. A formal voice will increase the distance between you and your reader.

5. Use plain language. In one of my workshop series for the Ontario government, I demonstrate how an announcement of a new medical scan, called a PET scan, could be written entirely without any technical terms except the word “PET” (which stands for positron emission tomography). Everything else of importance to the public could be explained without a single complex medical term. The original draft announcement had more than 15 such terms or unnecessarily sophisticated words.

Of course, health information can be complexed and nuanced. Clear writing retains nuance if it’s needed to clarify the meaning. But we look for ways to present health information so that people with little subject matter knowledge or other reading challenges can find the information they need, understand what they read and act on it.

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