By William Elwood, Ph.D. and Marin P. Allen, Ph.D.
As defined in the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, health literacy is the human “capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” An earlier post in this series demonstrates that health-literacy researchers have increased in number. Further, the knowledge of how to communicate health-related information has improved so people can manage illness for optimal health and wellbeing.
However, there is still a long way to go to complete health literacy. To help achieve this goal, NIH has created the online initiative, Clear Communication, to help everyone achieve two key health literacy objectives:
- Provide information in a form and with content that is accessible to specific audiences based on cultural competence, and
- Incorporate plain language approaches and new technologies.
When we share information with people we know, it’s relatively easy to know what to say and how to say it. For example, “I ♥ U,” and “J” are easy to exchange with those we know and love. In contrast, a pediatrician’s statement that “it’s just atopic dermatitis” may scare an anxious 18-year-old woman whose first newborn is miserable because his skin is swollen, itchy, and cracked from head-to-toe. More informative is a statement that “Asher has a kind of rash that happens a lot to babies. We call it eczema or atopic dermatitis. There are creams for it and it’s not catching. We’ll test it just to make sure.” This example reminds us that everyone needs to practice health literacy, even during a short healthcare visit.
To share information widely, we must compete with headphones, earbuds, bus schedules, signs, advertisements, texts, emoticons, and more. Furthermore, people speak or sign hundreds of languages across the United States, and in some American areas, a majority of people use English as a second language. Irrespective of time, resources, or the number or education level of people you want to reach, NIH recommends five steps to share health information with as many people as possible.
- Define the group of people you want to reach: your audience.
- Conduct research to understand your audience’s knowledge and needs.
- Decide how to share this information -- for example by smartphone or fact-sheet?
- Choose words and visuals familiar to you and your audience members.
- Test your “product” on a sample of your audience and revise it as they recommend.
Part of NIH’s mission is to reach all Americans with health information they can use. Inherent in this goal is to communicate in a way that helps people to understand research results easily. In other words, simple, grammatically correct language makes good sense and good medicine.
NIH’s steps provide a convenient, broad rubric to practice health literacy. If you would like more thorough training, NIH provides an online course, Plain Language: Getting Started or Brushing Up. It consists of five sections and a checklist you can download or print. Each section provides cards you can flip to learn about using plain language. When you complete all sections, you can print a certificate of completion. At NIH we turn discovery into health and give you the tools to share your health discoveries with others!
About the Authors
William Elwood, Ph.D.
OppNet/Health Scientist Administrator
Dr. Bill Elwood manages NIH’s Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet) to increase the agency’s amount & breadth of basic extramural research ($79-million/178 grants, FY2010-15). Bill is an agency expert on basic sociobehavioral processes, community-based (participatory) research, cultural processes, health literacy & numeracy, & communication. He has conducted community-based research throughout the United States and Mexico with a focus on substance abuse prevention, drug use epidemiology, substance abuse treatment, welfare reform programs, and public housing-based initiatives, and STD/HIV-interventions.
Marin P. Allen, Ph.D.
NIH Deputy Associate Director for Communications and Public Liaison; Director of the NIH Public Information Office
The Public Information Office is a focal point for health and science writing, health literacy, clear communication, plain language, cultural competency, and language access initiatives. It is also responsible for NIH programs and resources for the public including regular publications in print and on the web. Before joining NIH, Allen directed public relations for Gallaudet University (GU) then became a tenured, full-professor and Chair of the Department of Television, Film, and Photography in the School of Communication at GU during her service there. Marin has two EMMY awards for programs she produced that aired for five years on the Discovery Channel and PBS. She was elected for two terms to the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences DC Chapter and as an emeritus member of the Board of the Council on International Non-Theatrical Events (CINE). She is a two time CINE award winner.
Photo credit: bikeriderlondon/ Shutterstock