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Sometimes affinities for verbose and overly precise messaging unintentionally encumbers the proficiency of populations with internalizing—not to mention utilizing—the most salient peer-reviewed data regarding their physiology and healthiness.
Let’s try that again.
People prefer plain language—especially when it comes to their health. That is why October’s Health Literacy Month is a great time to highlight the importance of using plain language to improve health literacy. A cornerstone of our work in HIV, “health literacy” is someone’s ability to find and understand useful, accurate information to make informed choices about their health. For example, our national goals and strategies include educating all Americans [PDF, 2.13 MB] about HIV and increasing their knowledge and adoption of healthy behaviors [PDF 1.66 MB].
While my introductory sentence might be an obvious example of unclear writing, plain language can still be tricky for even veteran communicators. For example, HIV jargon often creeps into other parts of my life, and I sometimes assume everyone is just as familiar with terminology as I am. Sometimes, I even catch myself using words like “adherence” and “prevalence” in daily conversations. A few weeks ago, I even brought up the possibility of using the high-impact prevention concept to improve fundraisers at my daughter’s school. I got some interesting looks from the other parents, but we did agree to focus our energies on the events with lower costs and higher results.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes free health literacy trainings and tools available to help anyone improve their public health materials. I especially recommend using the tools to check language choices to ensure materials are accessible and actionable. These free resources include (but are not limited to) the following:
- The Clear Communication Index, a set of specific research-based criteria to help with the development and evaluation of materials. The index can be applied to almost any product, format, or audience.
- Everyday Words for Public Health Communication [PDF, 282 KB], a list of substitute words and phrases to help with switching from jargon to easy-to-understand terms.
- Inventory of Health Literacy Assessments and Resources, which helps organizations identify and then overcome the health literacy barriers within their programs.
Within CDC’s domestic HIV and STD programs, my colleagues have used CDC’s health literacy resources to create some impressive tools for on-the-ground partners, such as:
- A series of HIV Consumer Information Sheets (the first tab), which use plain language to explain complex concepts. Some are available in Spanish with more on the way.
- Several STD Fact Sheets, which have won awards for plain language and are available in multiple languages.
- The HIV Risk Reduction Tool, which takes complex data on transmission and prevention and presents it in an accessible format for users.
October and Health Literacy Month will soon be over, but our commitment to helping everyone make informed choices about their health is a never-ending responsibility. Thank you for everything you do to help everyone live their lives to the fullest, and please consider using free health literacy tools the next time you create or update a brochure, website, flyer, or any other product.