How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Making Numbers Make Sense

Jul 1, 2022

Health information is filled with numbers. This includes concepts such as quantity, time, and risk. But patients, caregivers, and the lay public often struggle to understand and use such numbers. Here are a dozen (12) ways to help make numbers make sense to others.


  • Confirm which measurement system to use, such as ounces or grams.
  • Mark how high to fill a drinking cup. Use a divided plate to show food portions.
  • Compare to known quantities, such as “4 ounces of meat, about the same size as a deck of playing cards” or “5 pounds, about the same as a bag of flour.”
  • Show pictures, such as thermometers of a normal temperature versus high fever.


  • Schedule medication around a person’s daily habits, such as “Take 1 pill after brushing your teeth in the morning and again after brushing your teeth at night.”
  • Draw hands on an analog clock to show proper dosing time. Better yet, express time as seen on a phone or digital clock. This means saying “5:45” rather than “a quarter to 6.”
  • Include pictures or icons representing time, such as sunrise and sunset.
  • Use pillboxes sectioned into day of week and time of day.


  • Provide context, such as stating what a person’s cholesterol level is this year versus last, or compared to others of the same age and with a comparable health history.
  • When talking about studies include how many people were in the study, their age and health status, and the time frame of results.
  • As makes sense, frame results as positive (95% of patients improve), not negative (5% of patients do not improve, or get worse).
  • Define important, yet seemingly simple, quantitative terms such as “common,” “rare,” and “often.”

Let’s make this a“baker’s dozen” of 13 how-to ideas. Here’s 1 more:

  • Be flexible about writing rules. Really, it’s okay to write “5” rather than “five.”

Ways to learn more:

Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Third Edition (2022). Helen Osborne’s best-selling, award-winning book looks at many strategies to communicate clearly, including with numbers. Order your copy today!