If you can read and understand this article, consider yourself fortunate. Did you know that more than 30 million people in the United States struggle with basic reading tasks? See Bill Weger’s latest column in the November 2013 issue of Public Relations Tactics, published by the Public Relations Society of America.
Only 12 percent of consumers have proficient health literacy skills, according to a National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Low health literacy can affect one’s ability to:
• Read prescription drug labels
• Fill out medical forms
• Locate health providers
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, defines health literacy as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.”
Health literacy is an issue for all racial and ethnic groups. It’s a major public health factor in eliminating disparities among minority populations. In recent years, as the U.S. population has become increasingly diverse, there has been more of a focus on improving health awareness. Advancing health literacy is an important component of the federal government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative as well. Many major schools of public health, too, now offer health literacy instruction.
There are many things that people can do to help improve health information’s design and delivery. Here are some basic tenets of health literacy that I have learned when preparing health communication messages and products for government health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
These federal agencies provide a wealth of resources on their websites, covering health awareness, plain language writing and cultural competency. And the CDC recently created a Clear Communication Index that assesses health literacy in public communications materials. The research-based tool measures language, information design, numbers and behavioral recommendations.
• Test for literacy. Readability evaluates the level at which people can read and understand content. Take into account the number of words in a sentence, the number of letters or syllables per word, and the sentence complexity. It does not factor in culture or meaning.
Several widely used readability formulas include: the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, Fry Readability Graph and the SMOG Readability Formula, among others.
• Make messages count. State the most important words at the outset. Convey a single idea at a time. Tell your audience what you want them to do. Don’t talk down to them. Stress action and use active voice. Be clear and consistent. Avoid jargon and technical language. Limit the use of numbers and statistics. Keep your messages short and simple.
• Present information logically and clearly. Give instructions and directions, in the correct order, to increase understanding. Use bulleted lists. Be conversational. Realize that short column widths are best. Let copy flow. Know that less is more. Watch transitions.
• Think carefully about design. Use ample white space. Support your text with quality visuals. Use symbols sparingly, as they may be confusing to some audiences. Justify your text on the left only, and use at least 12-point font size. Make headings and subheads even larger than the rest of the copy. Apply at least half-inch margins. Use text boxes and graphics to accentuate your content.
• Consider the culture. Do your homework. Know the audience. Be respectful. Is the language appropriate for the audience? Choose words that hold meaning. Realize that one size does not fit all — one group may favor specific terms, while another group may not prefer those terms. Use culturally sensitive images that resonate. Be careful about the positive and negative impact of particular colors. If possible, develop your content or products in the language of the intended audience. Pre-test your messages and materials.