Because I currently work full-time as a healthcare editor, the health writing sessions at ACES really resonated with me. Title V of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Although speakers Connie Feiler and Sarah Kastelic from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center note that the frequency with which a patient needs help reading written material from their doctor tends to positively correlate with a low health literacy rate, health literacy does not always match regular literacy or IQ. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell offers a prime example of this exception. He cites a study of hundreds of children, all with genius-level IQs, and shows how their socioeconomic status affected their interactions with authority, including doctors. The middle and upper class genius children asked their doctors questions and questioned the answers they received, while the lower class children of equal IQ were quiet, submissive, and didn’t know how to customize their experience.
If you have determined that your audience may have a low health literacy, it is important to summarize information, repeat key messages, and use plain language.
Plainlanguage.gov defines plain language as “communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.” Plain language is certainly vital in patient communication, but the Plain Writing Act of 2010 also mandates the use of plain language for all federal agencies. Geek alert: If I haven’t already lost you, the best is yet to come. Because I edit for a government contractor, I live and breathe plain language every day, so when it came up at ACES, I was all ears. The health literacy session I attended introduced a plain language tool that practically had me salivating: Health Literacy Advisor (HLA) is a time-saving software that works within Microsoft Word to calculate and improve readability. It was created for the health care industry, but it is based on plain language principles that are relevant to anything. It not only stamps documents with readability scores pre- and post-editing, but it has a built-in lexicon with over 12,000 plain-language alternatives and it functions as a search-and-replace. If you work with plain language or edit documents with a reading-level requirement, this is the tool for you.
- Numbers and math Ex: A voice transcription error turned “30 sows and pigs” into “30,000 pigs.” The copy editor should have flagged that as too many to be true!
- Visuals that distract or misrepresent Ex: wardrobe malfunctions, photo-shopped crowds
- Biased info Ex: “Health care reform” is a biased phrase itself because “reform” means to bring from bad to good.
- Superlatives and absolutes Ex: the worst, only, number one, highest
- Anomalies and unlikely scenarios Ex: baseball in winter; snow in San Diego
- People’s names
- URLs and email addresses
- Phone numbers
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