There’s no doubt that healthcare practitioners and medical specialists are smart people. Some even have decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge that makes them experts in their field.
But generally speaking, they’re not all good at communicating this knowledge to people who know nothing about health and medicine.
Some of the biggest mistakes I see health practitioners, medical experts and even health organisations making include:
- giving too much detailed information
- using complex medical terminology
- using industry jargon
- not meeting consumers’ real needs when it comes to health and medical information.
While it may seem that appearing knowledgeable is a surefire way to get people engaged, this tactic actually turns people off.
Remember a time when you read information you couldn’t make sense of? Information that used complex words and industry jargon? Content that contained so much information that you felt overwhelmed?
Did you get out the thesaurus and look up the words you didn’t understand? Did you Google the terminology they used to make sense of it?
Probably not. Because time is precious. Who has time for Googling words or thesaurus searching, particularly when you can probably find a simpler version of that information elsewhere?When we come across content we don’t understand we look elsewhere for information that is more accessible. Click To Tweet
Why writing ‘smart’ is not smart at all
Giving us too many details, and using complex language to tell us about these details is very common among clinicians and health organisations. I’m sure most of the time it’s because they feel that patients “need to know everything” for their own good, rather than as a tactic to appear smart.
But what good is their expertise, if we don’t understand what it is and how it will benefit us? And if we don’t understand what they do, will we engage their services?
While it makes sense to write in a way the majority of people will understand many health organisations and health practitioners are reluctant to simplify their messages.
“We don’t want to dumb it down”, they say.
The myth of ‘dumbing it down’
The term ‘dumbing it down’ is an unfortunate one. It contains connotations of not being smart enough to understand a particular concept. Some definitions of ‘dumbing down’ include:
“To simplify something excessively in order to make it suitable for a less educated or less sophisticated audience” – The Free Dictionary.
“To make or become less intellectually demanding or sophisticated” – Dictionary.com.
And my favourite (insert sarcasm here) …
“The process of making something less accurate or educational, and or worse quality, by trying to make it easier for people to understand.” – Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries.
Is it any wonder many organisations are reluctant to simplify their messages?
Let me be clear.‘Dumbing down’ is not about people being dumb or stupid. Nor is it about making something less accurate or informative. It’s about using simple language to make content accessible to a larger number of people. Click To Tweet
‘Dumbing down’ health content is not about people being dumb or stupid. Nor is it about making something less accurate or informative. It’s about using simple language to make content accessible to a larger number of people.
And if you ask me, that’s just plain smart.
Why we should ‘dumb down’ health content
You may be surprised to learn that literacy levels in Australia are low. Literacy refers to a person’s ability to read and write. It also refers to how well they can access written information in print or digital formats.
According to the Australian Government’s Style Manual:
- about 44% of adults have a low level of literacy — anywhere from level 1 (up to year 6) to level 2 (up to year 10)
- 38% of adults read at years 11 and 12 level
- about 15% read at the highest level — Certificate IV, Diploma and above.
When it comes to health literacy (how people access, understand and apply health information), the statistics are worse. Around 60% of Australians have low health literacy.
Now think of those complex messages in light of these statistics.
Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities
We also need simpler language because English is not everyone’s first language. It’s widely accepted that English is one of the hardest languages to learn because of its unpredictable spelling. It also has unusual grammar quirks and inconsistent and odd rules.
Remember the “i before e except after c” rule, which isn’t consistent at all?
Using plain English means that more people from CALD communities can also access health and medical information.
People with disability or learning disorders
People with an intellectual disability or those with learning disorders such as dyslexia may also find it hard to access information if it’s not written clearly and simply.
A state, not a trait
Even someone with a high level of health literacy may have trouble understanding information when they feel stressed, anxious, overwhelmed or under pressure.
Communicate Health, an organisation dedicated to improving health literacy, refers to this as a ‘state, not a trait’. In other words, it’s not a trait that makes it hard for people to understand information. Rather, it’s the situation or state they’re in.
When you feel scared, overwhelmed, anxious or vulnerable — as many patients do — the ability to read and understand complex information is reduced considerably.
‘Dumbing down’ health information means that even if they are in this state, they can still access and understand information that is important for their health condition.Any time we write for the general public, we should work at making our messages clearer by using simpler language. Click To Tweet
When do we need simpler language?
The short answer is ALL THE TIME!
Any time we write for the general public, we should work at making our messages clearer by using simpler language.
Imagine you needed to have a blood test but didn’t know how it was done or what it would involve. Now imagine getting these instructions from your doctor…
“You will need to see a phlebotomist who will perform venipuncture on you. They will choose either the median cubital vein or the cephalic vein for this procedure. A tourniquet will be applied above the selected puncture site. The phlebotomist will palpate and trace the path of the vein with their index finger and instruct you to make a fist and pump your hand.
They will then select the appropriate-sized needle and attach it to a syringe or Vacutainer hub. The tourniquet will be loosened and the needle will be swiftly inserted into the selected puncture site, bevel side up, at a 15-30 degree angle with the skin, into the lumen of the vein.
When the sample collection is complete, they will remove the tourniquet, apply gauze over the venipuncture site and ask you to apply adequate pressure to avoid the formation of a haematoma. Once blood loss has been terminated, they will apply surgical tape to hold the gauze firmly over the puncture site.”
Would you feel reassured or even more confused and worried? And would you even go and have a blood test?
Granted, the above may be a bit of an exaggeration.
But I have seen patient information about medical procedures that contained similar amounts of detail and industry jargon. And the clinicians wondered why their patients didn’t fully understand what their procedure involved, and why they didn’t follow post-surgery instructions correctly!
Medical terminology and jargon should be reserved only for physician-to-physician communication, or when keeping medical records. It should never be used when communicating with patients or the wider community.
Why ‘dumbing down’ health content (using plain language) is actually smart
For the record, I hate the term ‘dumbing down’.
Everyone, even those with the highest literacy rates or the highest level of health and medical knowledge, can benefit from plain language.
Plain language is simple and direct without being patronizing.
Plain language helps us to fully understand key information on the first reading.
It means we save time translating complex words. We are less likely to make incorrect assumptions or need other people to explain things to us. We’re also less likely to make mistakes when filling out documents, and more likely to comply with important instructions.
Plain language is also reassuring, calming and builds trust with the reader.
But most importantly, using plain language to write health and medical content upholds a basic human right — the right to health.
We all have a right to health
The right to health is the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
However, writing health and medical content in a way that prevents people from accessing it does not uphold this right. Because if people can’t access or understand health information, how can they enjoy the highest attainable standard of health?
Using plain language means that more people can access information that will make a difference in their health and wellbeing.
It means they will better understand what they need to do to stay healthy, and what they need to do if they become unwell.
They are better able to look after the health and wellbeing of their children or elderly relatives.
They have the best chance of recovering from illness or managing their diagnosis.
It can also be the difference between being diagnosed with a disease early (when treatment is more effective) or late (when treatment is no longer possible).Using plain language to write health and medical content upholds a basic human right — the right to health. Click To Tweet
Plain language ensures that we uphold everyone’s right to health.
And a happier, healthier population has enormous benefits for all of us.
Which seems pretty smart to me.
So don’t be afraid to simplify your health and medical content (and try to avoid the phrase ‘dumbing it down’) because there’s nothing dumb about making sure that your target audience actually understands what you’re saying.
It’s just one of my superpowers.
Australian Government Style Manual, Literacy and access, https://www.stylemanual.gov.au/accessible-and-inclusive-content/literacy-and-access
NSW Government Clinical Excellence Commission, Health literacy, https://www.cec.health.nsw.gov.au/improve-quality/teamwork-culture-pcc/person-centred-care/health-literacy