Say What?? Writing Health Info that People Actually Understand

Reading this week’s materials got me interested in websites again, but this time as a platform to convey health information and not a virtual html shrine dedicated to the teenaged me. One thing that came to mind: how do you convey somewhat complex health information to the general public, who have varying levels of health literacy?

What is health literacy? Health literacy, as defined by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

Why is health literacy important? According to the American Medical Association’s report, Health Literacy and Patient Safety: Help Patients Understand, “Poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person’s health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race.” Low literacy is associated with higher hospitalization rates and less use of health preventive services. Patients who have low literacy are more likely to be older, from immigrant or minority populations, low income, and/or have lacked educational opportunity or have learning disabilities.

In other words, they are at higher risk for hospitalization, chronic illness, and are the very populations who need to receive the information most.


Readers are likely to have intermediate health literacy. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Health Literacy results, half (53%) of US adults had intermediate literacy, about a quarter (22%) had basic health literacy, and 14% had Below Basic health literacy. In other words, Almost 9 out of 10 American adults struggle to understand complex health information. Only 1 out of 10 are Proficient. And in the U.S. there are 30 million people at the Below Basic literacy level. That’s about the number of people in the entire country of Afghanistan.

How can website design and content be used to best communicate to these populations? has a great but long 103-paged document guiding you to optimize website design for health communication. I thought I’d list a few of my major takeaways:

  • Write actionable content. Average Web users are looking to answer a question and stay on a page for about 27 seconds. Tell users what you want them to do and how to do it.
  • Put the most important info first. Most users with limited literacy only read the first few words on a page.
  • Consider culture when writing your content.
  • Avoid lengthy prose. People tend to skip over paragraphs with more than 3 lines of text.
  • Keep lists short; 3-7 items is ideal.
  • Aesthetics matter. Display content clearly on the page. Limit italics. Use bold text for emphasis. Use dark text on a light background.
  • Be smart about graphics and multimedia. Photographs are ideal for real-live events, showing people, and highlighting emotions. Illustrations and cartoons can simplify complex or sensitive issues, such as HIV, medical procedures, and airborne disease transmission. Consider infographics. Limit one message per visual.

Check out these example infographics from the CDC.


I wanted to leave you with a few resources for your own public health website:


6 thoughts on “Say What?? Writing Health Info that People Actually Understand

  1. Debora,
    Thanks for sharing these resources and I love the infographics from CDC about contacts overuse and low vision is scary. We all need to be taking good care of eyes and infographics like these are a good reminder.

  2. Great post. You make a very good point about health literacy. From a clinical standpoint, its so important to be understood, that it sometimes takes some “re-phrasing” and using short sentences with small words to get my point across. On the other hand, patients have got to learn how to advocate for themselves, and to be engaged in their own health care.

    Your infographic was not only funny, but applicable for new contact users (myself included).

  3. Great post! I love the campaigns, especially about the contacts. I must admit that I am guilty of those should nots…

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