The average reading level for U.S. adults is seventh grade. The recommendation for healthcare communications is that it be at a fourth or fifth-grade level.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 percent of adults have the health literacy skills needed to manage and prevent disease. Nine in every 10 of us struggle to understand and use health information.

The reason is that much health-related content is unfamiliar, complex, or filled with industry jargon. The reality – and imperative – is we need to improve health literacy. Low health literacy costs this country an estimated $238 billion each year, not to mention unnecessary health problems and quality of life.

When it comes to health literacy, using Plain English isn’t just the best approach. In many cases, it is required.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to produce “communications the public can understand and use.” This requirement includes communication produced by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health literacy improvement requires simple, relatable, and actionable communications that reach a broad audience. This means using plain language (or Plain English content and design that improves print, web, eLearning, call scripts, and other healthcare communications.

What is Plain Language?

Plain Language is communication people can relate to, use, understand, and act upon the first time they read it. It relies on common words and phrases, short sentences, and paragraphs that convey only what the audience needs to know. When paired with simple design, plenty of white space, bullets, headers, and graphics, Plain Language is easier to navigate and absorb.

The federal government isn’t alone in mandating plain language to break down literacy barriers. Many government agencies and private industries also have guidelines to make sure communications are clear and effective. More than 20 states are focusing on health literacy.

What is Health Literacy?

More than 20 states are expressly focused on health literacy.

The Title V of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 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.”

Can Plain Language Improve Health Literacy?

It can. Plain language is clear and to the point. It’s easy to read, absorb and act on regardless of the medium. And it tells the reader just what they need to know and do. It does this without using difficult and unnecessary words or industry jargon.

We recommend applying plain language to your English source documents before you translate them. This will help improve health literacy. Testing lets you know whether your communications hit the mark.

Consider this example:

Renal disease is hard to detect early because most indications of renal disease don’t show up until later stages. Symptoms may include changes in urination, fatigue, itching, or swelling of the hands or feet.

On the readability scale, these sentences test at Grade 11, making them “difficult to read.” A Plain language makeover measures at Grade 4, or “easy to read”:

Kidney disease is hard to detect early. Most symptoms don’t show up until you've had it for a while. You may be tired, notice changes when you urinate, or your feet or hands may itch or swell.

How Can Plain Language Benefit You?

Communications drives relationships with your customers, partners, and colleagues. Clear communications help you reach a broader audience, build trust, and lay the foundation for long-term partnerships.

LanguageLine(R) supports more than 10,000 healthcare clients with language services that improve access and health literacy. Our Plain language experts offer decades of experience improving healthcare communications. We have a team called ClaritySM that focuses on translating documents into Plain English.

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