Adults are expected to gather and use health information from media sources as diverse as food and medicine labels to computer print-outs; to understand topics ranging from fat grams to medication instructions; to use high-level reading and analysis skills in locations ranging from the grocery store to the hospital. These are not easy demands to meet.
For the 93 million adults across the country with limited literacy skills, health literacy is an even larger challenge. And many of these adults will be eligible to sign up for health insurance for the first time in 2014. Research in the past decade has provided evidence that adults with limited literacy skills have:
Research studies have also documented that elders (adults 65 and older) and are at particular risk of low health literacy. Literacy abilities decline progressively with age, posing a large and growing healthcare risk as our entire population ages and diversifies.
While research doesn’t provide any easy “solutions” to the challenge of health literacy, national reports do state the need for clear language (IOM report) and “well-conceived interventions” (AHRQ). Plain language, as defined by well-established criteria, IS clear language and certainly is part of a well-conceived intervention. While not a magic bullet, it can help all adults better understand health information and make wise health-related choices.
Some hear the term plain language and think “short words/short sentences” or “dumbed down ideas” or “low reading level.” This description is simply not accurate. In fact, plain language uses evidence-based recommendations about how to structure, write and design information to facilitate reading ease and audience understanding. In patient teaching, it includes ways of verbally structuring and offering information to help assure patient understanding.
Plain language is essential in technology-based communication as well. Reading on screen is more difficult and adults tend to skim and scan. We have only seconds to present major points.
Vibrant plain language is far from plain. It’s lively, engaging, and results in effective communication.
Writing effective plain language information — brochures, letters, handbooks, self-care instructions, consent
forms, web text,
etc. — requires more than good intentions
and goodwill. It requires skills. The Institute taught those skilll for 22 years.