Health Literacy and Plain Language

It’s October, which means it’s Health Literacy Month!

Health literacy is the capacity to obtain, understand, and act upon basic health information. You already know that low health literacy can lead to low medication adherence, high readmission rates, and increased healthcare costs. Last year, we created an infographic to demonstrate how the majority of American adults have difficulty navigating the health care system due to low health literacy. This year, we want to discuss plain language, a strategy used to combat low health literacy.

confused2“Plain language” encompasses a lot more than just avoiding big words; it is a strategy for making information easier to understand. Yes, it involves replacing complex medical terminology with simpler words or phrases; but it also includes organizing information based on importance and breaking down complex information into understandable chunks.1,2 There are a lot of misconceptions about plain language. The NIH offers this clarification: “Plain language is not unprofessional writing or a method of ‘dumbing down’ or ‘talking down’ to the reader.”3 Of course, language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others,1,2 so it’s important to know your audience and test materials with them to ensure understanding.

The Plain Language Thesaurus (produced by the CDC) is a valuable plain language resource for healthcare providers and a good place to start. It offers alternative word suggestions for numerous medical terms. For example, the thesaurus suggests replacing the term “abdomen” with “stomach area” or “belly.” Additionally, the Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective (produced by HHS) is an 11-part health literacy resource that provides tools for creating understandable written materials. Part 3 is particularly useful in regards to the organizational aspect of plain language.

Improving health literacy is the driving force behind Nucleus Medical Media, so we use plain language to guide the script-writing process of every animation we create. The process begins by setting learning objectives (i.e. “what do we want viewers to be able to do after watching an animation?”). This helps us determine what information needs to be included and how it should be organized. As we write, we replace medical jargon with descriptive phrases. When terminology is unavoidable we make sure it is well-defined. Putting care, expertise, and a little heart into each animation is what elevates us above content vendor to content partner for many of our healthcare clients.



1: Quick Guide to Health Literacy. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
2: What Is Plain Language? Plain Language Action and Information Network.
3: Plain Language at NIH. National Institutes of Health.