6 ways to demystify your messaging for patients

Health care marketers and other communicators must offer easily digestible language to deliver much-needed services to consumers.


Clear communication is crucial in health care.

Still, many marketers often use complex words that only doctors and nurses—who have special education and training—would understand. Doing so impedes communication with patients and consumers at large.

When someone can’t comprehend health care language, they probably won’t use medicines correctly or get the care they need for their symptoms or illnesses.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, only 12 percent of U.S. adults have proficient health literacy . Health care terms can be daunting for anyone, regardless of their reading level.

Here are six tips and tricks to help you simplify and clarify your health care communications:

  1. Everyday Words for Public Health Communication. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great document that provides common language to replace health jargon, ranging from “abstinence” to “virus.” It’s not just health-specific terms that increase reading difficulty. Words like “utilize” and “feasible” also are included.
  1. Use readability tools . A number of scoring methods, including the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, can let you know whether your copy reads at the recommended eighth-grade level. If you use the Yoast SEO tool on your blog or website, the Flesch-Kincaid test is available for each post you write.

Readable.io combines several scoring systems and highlights longer sentences, adverb use and big words in your copy. Unfortunately, the free version lets you score only a couple of pieces of content before requesting that you sign up for the premium version.

Another free option is Word’s readability statistics .

  1. Don’t be afraid to elaborate. Often, it takes an extra word or two to clarify a medical term. Always be efficient with language, but don’t sacrifice clarity.
  1. Give it the kid test. This is the least scientific method, but perhaps the most reliable test. Have your kids read it and explain what they’ve read. Did they pause? Did they stumble on any words? If so, rewrite.
  1. Run a social media test. A great way to test on social media is to use dark Facebook posts. Such tests have two benefits: You’ll get to see how people are responding to simple language versus health care jargon, and it gives you quantitative evidence to make a case for simple language.
  1. Use research to make your case. Research shows that when people don’t understand basic health terms it can affect their well-being. “America’s Health Literacy: Why We Need Accessible Health Information” is a good place to start to gather information that will improve your chances of winning the phrasing battle if a doctor or medical professional has final content approval. This in-depth look at health literacy from Harvard can also help make your case.

Ultimately, clear language helps patients to better understand what your health care system does and how they benefit from it.

From a public health standpoint, that’s significant. From a competitive standpoint, it’s essential. Whoever communicates best will win new patients and prompt established patients to seek care they need.

A version of this article is on the Lindsay, Stone & Briggs Blog.

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