Health Literacy Month: Use Plain Language!

By Cheryl Lathrop

health_literacyHelen Osborne founded Health Literacy Month in 1999 and since then thousands of awareness-raising events have taken place across the country and around the world—communication workshops for professionals, health education programs for patients, and educational offerings for students at all levels.

But, let’s back up for a minute—what does health literacy mean to you? Understanding what your doctor says? Understanding what your prescription bottle says? It’s about all of those. Health literacy is your ability to obtain, understand, and use health information.

The patient education brochures in the waiting room of your doctor’s office need to be written in “plain language”—language that all patients coming to that office can understand. Speaking to you using short sentences, common everyday words, and an easy-to-read format such as bullets and tables. Not using overly technical language such as myocardial infarction (heart attack) or hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol).

What are the consequences of poor health literacy? A young mother pours a drug that is supposed to be taken by mouth into her baby’s ear, perforating the eardrum. A man in his 70s preparing for his first colonoscopy uses a suppository as directed, but without first removing it from the foil packet. These are real life examples from health care workers.

And guess what? Your government also has to write in “plain language” now. On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requiring federal agencies to use “clear communication that the public can understand and use.” See some great before and after examples here. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is a group of federal employees dedicated to the idea that citizens deserve clear communications from their government. What a concept!

Have you noticed that the small-print “important information” page following a drug ad in a magazine is now in larger print and easier to understand? We’re getting there, but we have a long way to go. How many times have you said to yourself: What did the doctor say? What did that blood test mean? How many pills am I supposed to take?

So what can you do to be your own health literacy advocate? If your doctor is talking to you in medical-ese, ask him to talk in plain language. If English is not your first language, bring a friend along that’s a native English speaker. Bring a tape recorder. Bring paper and take notes. Use that consultation window at the pharmacy and ask your pharmacist to explain the label on your prescription bottle. Repeat in your own words what you have just been told to make sure you understand. And don’t ever nod your head and say you understand when you don’t!

The theme for the 2013 Health Literacy Month is “Be a Health Literacy Hero.” Take action and find ways to improve how to communicate health information. Here are some examples of heroes. Could you be a Health Literacy Hero today? Why not?! As Helen Osborne says, “Together, we truly make a difference.”

Want more information? See the Health Literacy Month website here. Also visit PLAIN, the Plain Language Association InterNational (Canada), and PEF, the Plain English Foundation (Australia).


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