You have a lot of important health information to share. But will intended readers want to read it? You can help by writing in a way that readers not only find worthy of their time but also welcoming. Here’s how-to:
- Speak directly to the reader, using words such as “you” and “your.” This is much more welcoming than impersonally writing about “the patient” or “people with [x] disease.”
- Frame information in an honest way. Admittedly, many medical procedures are unpleasant or otherwise yucky. Be honest when writing about such topics. An example I sometimes use in workshops is a pre-procedure teaching sheet informing patients that they will be given a “pleasantly flavored drink.” But it’s not true. That drink tastes chalky and awful. In my opinion it is better to say nothing at all than describe something in untrue or misleading ways.
- Frame information in a positive way. Health instructions often include activities that patients should not do. When possible, it is better to emphasize positive information such as, “You can lift up to 5 pounds” rather than vague and negative instructions like, “Do not lift heavy objects.” Almost always it is best to begin with what people can, rather than cannot, do.
- Encourage interaction with your readers. One way to invite readers to read is with interaction. At the very least this could be a line for patients to write their own, or the doctor’s, name. Other forms of interaction include simple quizzes and check-off lists that either reinforce points you’ve just addressed or preface information you soon will teach.
Ways to learn more:
Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition (Updated 2018), by Helen Osborne. You might be especially interested in Chapter 9, “Document Design.”
Helen has recorded several Health Literacy Out Loud podcasts on this topic. Click the links below to listen to the interviews and read their transcripts:
- Patient-Oriented Discharge Summaries: Helping Patients Easily Understand Their Transition from Hospital to Home (HLOL #198), an interview with Shoshana Hahn-Goldberg.
- How Visual Cues Help Readers Read (HLOL #95), and interview with Josiah Fisk.
- Using Design to Get Readers to Read and Keep Reading (HLOL#29), an interview with Karen Schriver.
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.