If you're comfortable with medical jargon, it can be hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who struggles with words like "abdomen", "acute" and "haemorrhoids". But stripping jargon from your comms can literally be lifesaving.
Research shows that more than four in 10 UK adults have low health literacy, meaning they struggle to understand leaflets, letters, medical terminology and what they're told verbally too. As a result, they're unable to attend medical appointments, access public health services and take their medication properly.
Why clear language matters
Lower reading and writing skills, physical and learning needs and language barriers all contribute to low health literacy. And the NHS team tasked with raising awareness about it has many stark examples of its impact. These include someone who thought their "positive" cancer diagnosis was a good thing and a patient who didn't turn up for their cancer appointment because they didn't understand the word "radiology" on hospital signs and were too embarrassed to ask for directions.
Not understanding health information has deep emotional consequences; it means you can't ask questions or express your worries. In essence, you have no control over your health and wellbeing.
Given the overwhelming need for clarity, there are frequent calls for healthcare clinicians to dial down the jargon and use plain English. For example, in 2018 the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges published guidance on writing clearer outpatient clinic letters. We responded at the time by rewriting a real doctor's letter to make it simpler and clearer.
Because it's not just the responsibility of health professionals to communicate clearly in plain language, health content producers like our team at Thrive must lead the way.
And it's about much more than just avoiding complicated words and confusing acronyms…
Tips for clear health communications
1) Simplify and explain everything (not just the jargon)First, don't assume things you understand are easy for other people. Developing your empathetic content skills can help you unlock a clearer approach.
Make simple word switches, for example say: "stop smoking" instead of "smoking cessation", "kidney" not "renal" and "bottom" not "rectum". And explain medical terms in a digestible, friendly way, but avoid confusing euphemisms (like "the change" instead of "menopause").
For example: "The menopause is a term used to describe when a woman naturally stops having her periods and it usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age."
And explain (concisely) bodily processes and parts – people are surprisingly hazy about these. For example, a recent YouGov survey found half of Brits don't know where the vagina is.
Ensure all your language – not just medical language – is unfussy too. So, instead of "abstain from", say "don't". Instead of talking about medicine "interactions", talk about what it "doesn't mix with". Choose "carry on" instead of "persist".
Avoid lots of statistics. NHS research shows most adults struggle with health content that includes numbers. Instead of saying: "eight out of 10 people recover fully in a week", say: "within a few days, you should feel better".
And as well as streamlining your language, make sure the structure of your medical information is simple too. Short sentences and paragraphs stripped of redundant words plus clear subheads and bullet points are essential components of clear, concise copy. If you need a helping hand, check out the NHS Digital team's resources, and apps like Hemingway Editor.
2) Find new approaches to explain complicated things
Use visual aids, such as photos, infographics or video content. Creative ideas can explain difficult topics in a way that words just can't, as proven by the Know Your Lemons breast cancer awareness campaign.
Although they have limitations, easy analogies, such as "your heart is like a pump" or "high cholesterol is like hair that clogs up your drain" can help.
Include real voices – regular people explaining their experiences are naturally more understandable. Diabetes UK's online patient information is peppered with quotes from people who have diabetes and want to share their lived, relatable experiences.
3) Be positive, person-focused, inclusive and accessible
Check that you're not allowing any judgement, stereotyping or negativity to creep in. Comms that attributes responsibility or blame is likely to alienate your audience, not support them, and won't spur them to respond positively. For example, the World Obesity Forum has produced clear guidelines on talking about weight in a way that doesn't reinforce misconceptions and contribute to weight stigma.
There's no point producing health content targeted at a particular group if they can't access it.
And finally, test your copy with your audience and welcome feedback about ways you could improve readability too. Sometimes stepping out of your bubble and speaking to the very people you're trying to support can bring enormous clarity.