Health information is filled with numbers. This includes concepts of quantity, time, and risk. But many people struggle to understand such numbers. This month’s Health Literacy How-To Tip has a dozen (12) ways to communicate numbers that can help others better understand. Some how-to tips also have links for you to listen and learn more.
- Confirm which measurement system to use, such as ounces or grams. Learn more by listening to my Health Literacy Out Loud (HLOL) podcast interview with Dr. Benard Dreyer and Dr. Shonna Yin discussing their “Research About Using the Millileter as a Standard Unit for Liquid Medication.”
- Show numbers, don’t just tell. For instance, you might draw a line on a drinking cup showing how high to fill it. Or demonstrate on a divided plate how much protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables to serve.
- Use comparisons or metaphors to help explain unfamiliar concepts and quantities. Examples include “Eat 4 ounces of chicken, about the size of a cell phone” or “Lift up to 5 pounds, about the same weight as a small bag of flour.”
- Illustrate concepts, such as a picture of a thermometer showing the difference between how it looks with a normal temperature versus high fever. A related example is the website Sugar Stacks that illustrates the number of sugar cubes in popular foods, snacks, and drinks.
- Schedule medication around a person’s daily habits, such as “Take 1 pill after brushing your teeth in the morning and 1 pill after brushing your teeth at night.” Learn more by listening to my podcast interview with Dr. Andrea Apter, “Health Numeracy, Helping Patients Understand Numeric Concepts.”
- Talk about time in terms of the device people use. Given the popularity of cell phones, it may make sense to say “Your appointment is tomorrow afternoon at 2:45” rather than “I’ll see you tomorrow at a quarter to 3.”
- Use pillboxes sectioned into time of day and day of week. Such boxes not only show what medications to take when but also clearly indicate which ones have already been taken.
- Include pictures or icons representing time, such as a sunrise to indicate morning and a sunset for evening. Learn more by reading AHRQ’s, “How to Create a Pill Card.”
- Provide context, such as stating what a person’s cholesterol level is now versus last year, or how this level compares to other patients of the same age. Learn more by listening to my HLOL podcast interview with Sally Bigwood, “Presenting Data That Works for Most People, Most of the Time.”
- When talking about studies, include the denominator (how many people were in the study) and time frame (over what period of time). Learn more in my HLOL podcast with Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, PhD, “When Communicating Risk, Consider What Patients Need and Want to Know.”
- Consider how to frame research results. Often this means framing data in a positive way (95% of patients improve), rather than negative (5% of patients do not improve or get worse). Hear more in my interview with Dr. Lisa Schwartz and Dr. Steven Woloshin, “Helping Others Understand Health Messages.”
- Define important terms such as “common,” “rare,” and “often.” Listen to my HLOL podcast interview with Dr. David Nelson, “Clearly Communicating Scientific Information.”
Let’s make this a “baker’s dozen” of 13 how-to ideas.
- Be flexible about writing rules. Really, it’s okay to write “7” rather than “seven.”
More Ways to Learn:
- Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition, by Helen Osborne. This award-winning, best-selling book includes a chapter on numeracy. Published by Jones & Bartlett Learning. Available from the publisher’s website and online bookstores.
- Helen Osborne often presents keynotes and workshops about many aspects of health literacy. Learn more about many of her topics, including numeracy, “Multiplying Our Stratgies to Communicate Numbers.”
For permission to include Health Literacy Consulting Tips in your organization's newsletter, please contact Helen Osborne by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at: 508-653-1199.