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How To Write Effectively About Health

Writing is a key part of health communication. Along with design, text is used in written materials for health education programs, public health campaigns, patient care, and research. It appears in print materials, such as handouts, posters, and books. Text also comes in electronic form, such as email and text messages, social media posts, website copy, patient portals, and captions.

This article offers winning strategies for writing about health. We’ll discuss what makes health-related text effective. We’ll talk about the impact of effective health writing. We’ll explore some general strategies for writing about health. Finally, we’ll discuss how to tailor health writing to readers’ communication needs and preferences.

What is effective health writing? 

Let’s start by discussing what makes health-related text effective.

Effective health writing promotes health literacy

Effective text enables readers to “find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” That’s according to Healthy People 2030, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Effective health writing is a health literacy universal precaution

Effective text helps all of us. It’s a health literacy universal precaution.

Why? Health information is complex. Many readers have trouble finding, understanding, and using health information. Even strong health literacy skills can falter at times of stress — such as a health crisis. And you can’t always tell when someone has trouble. Therefore, strive to communicate effectively with all readers.


What is the impact of effective health writing?

We’ve looked at what makes health-related text effective. Now let’s discuss why it’s so important.

Better patient self-management = better health outcomes

Effective text helps patients take better care of their health. For instance, clear labeling helps patients correctly measure their medicine doses. Better self-management, in turn, improves health outcomes, such as lowering the rate of deaths caused by heart problems.

Better use of healthcare services = more efficient, less costly healthcare

At the same time, effective text (as in public health campaign materials) improves use of healthcare services. That is, it increases use of preventive care (such as getting flu shots), while decreasing avoidable hospitalizations and use of emergency care. This makes healthcare more efficient and less costly.

Higher patient satisfaction

Healthcare providers and organizations that use effective text (as in brochures and intake forms) see higher patient satisfaction. That is, they score better on the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS).

Higher rewards for healthcare providers and organizations  

Value-based programs (such as Medicare) reward healthcare providers and organizations for scoring well on such measures as health outcomes, patient safety, patient experience, efficiency, and cost. Providers and organizations that use effective text get better scores, which lead to higher rewards.

Fewer legal problems for healthcare providers and organizations

Finally, healthcare providers and organizations that use effective text are less likely to face legal problems, such as malpractice claims.


What are some general strategies for writing about health?

We’ve looked at why effective health-related text is so important. Now let’s explore some general strategies for writing about health. Think of these tips as a baseline for effective writing.

Make health writing accurate

Effective text is accurate. Make sure text is correct and up to date. Use reliable sources, and do a final check for accuracy.

Make health writing easy to understand

Effective text is easy for readers to understand. Here are some tips for making text easy to understand.

Use simple, everyday words

Avoid using unusual words, such as medical jargon. Also avoid using idioms, acronyms, and abbreviations. Instead, use simple, everyday words. If you must use challenging words, explain them on first use. This is called using plain language.

Here are some examples of plain language alternatives for medical jargon.

Medical Jargon

Plain Language

Instead of saying …

Try saying …

hyperglycemia

high blood sugar

embolism

blood clot

hypotension

low blood pressure



Keep it short

Use short sentences and paragraphs. Try to limit sentences to 20 words or less. Keep paragraphs to two or three sentences.

Use active voice

Active voice tells who does an action. It’s easier to understand than passive voice.

Here are some examples of active voice alternatives to passive voice.

Passive Voice

Active Voice

Instead of saying …

Try saying …

Your blood pressure will be taken at each visit.

A nurse will take your blood pressure at each visit.

Washing your hands is advised to kill flu germs.

The CDC advises washing your hands to kill flu germs.

A stent will be put in for chemotherapy.

Your doctor will put in a stent for chemotherapy.



Make health writing easy to use

Effective text is easy for readers to use. Here are some tips for making text usable.

Be organized

Guide readers by organizing information.

  • Introduce and summarize. Start by saying what you’ll cover. Close by reviewing key points.

  • Put text in a logical order. Start with the most important points. Focus each sentence or paragraph on one idea.

  • Use lists. Where it makes sense, use numbered and bulleted lists. Lists break text into chunks that are easy to digest and remember. Try to limit lists to seven items or fewer. 

  • Use headings and subheadings. Headings and subheadings guide readers by telling them what a section is about. Try to limit them to eight words or fewer. Some people read only headings and subheadings. So make sure they contain useful information.

Include action steps

Tell readers clearly what you want them to do.

Engage readers

Make readers want to keep reading by engaging them.

  • Be friendly. Pretend you’re talking to a friend. For instance, use the word “you.”

  • Be relevant. Tell readers how to reach their health goals.

  • Use examples and stories. In addition to engaging readers, these can make concepts easier to understand.



How can I tailor health writing to readers’ communication needs and preferences?

We’ve explored some general strategies for writing about health. Now let’s discuss how to tailor text to readers’ communication needs and preferences.

Follow these five steps:

  1. Identify your goals.

  2. Identify your readers.

  3. Get to know your readers.

  4. Write the text.

  5. Test and refine the text.

We’ll look at each of these steps in turn.

Step 1: Identify your goals

Decide what you want the text to accomplish. Do you want readers to adopt a heart-healthy diet? Take their medicines correctly? Play an active role in their healthcare?

Step 2: Identify your readers

Decide who your readers are. Do you want to reach people with type 2 diabetes who are older than 65? Parents of children with autism? Transgender youth? Be as specific as possible.

Step 3: Get to know your readers

Learn all you can about your readers’ communication needs and preferences. For instance:

  • What do they already know about the health topic? What do they still need to learn? What are their specific goals and problems in relation to this topic?

  • How well do they read and understand health writing? Do they have any disabilities or other challenges that make this harder?

  • What language(s) do they read and write very well?

  • What are their cultural beliefs and practices related to the health topic? 

  • What types of written materials work best for them? For instance, do they prefer smartphone apps, brochures, or websites? What types of text do they find most engaging?

To learn about your readers, gather existing and new data.

Gather existing data. Start by gathering existing data about your readers. Here are some free sources of data:

Gather new data. Existing data likely won’t tell you everything you want to know about your readers. So you may need to gather new data. For instance, you can conduct focus groups, interviews, or surveys.

Step 4: Write the text

Using what you learned, write the text. Strive to address readers’ communication needs and preferences.

Step 5: Test and refine the text

Test the text with readers to make sure it’s effective. Refine it as needed. Repeat this process of testing and refinement until you confirm that the text works well.

Here are some ways to collect and use feedback on written materials:

  • Ask readers a series of questions.

  • Ask readers to think aloud.

  • Give readers a task.

  • Observe readers.

You can learn about these methods here.


Summary

This article offers winning strategies for writing about health. Here’s a quick recap.

Meaning of effective health writing

Effective health writing promotes health literacy. It’s a health literacy universal precaution.

Impact of effective health writing
  • Better patient self-management, which leads to better health outcomes. 

  • Better use of healthcare services, which leads to more efficient, less costly healthcare. 

  • Higher patient satisfaction.

  • Higher rewards for healthcare providers and organizations. 

  • Fewer legal problems for healthcare providers and organizations.

General strategies for writing about health
  • Make health writing accurate.

  • Make health writing easy to understand.

o   Use simple, everyday words.

o   Keep it short.

o   Use active voice.

  • Make health writing easy to use.

o   Be organized.

§  Introduce and summarize.

§  Put text in a logical order.

§  Use lists, headings, and subheadings.

o   Include action steps.

o   Engage readers.

§  Be friendly and relevant.

§  Use examples and stories.

How to tailor health writing to readers’ communication needs and preferences
  1. Identify your goals.

  2. Identify your readers.

  3. Get to know your readers by gathering existing and new data.

  4. Write the text.

  5. Test and refine the text.



We extend our sincere gratitude to Audrey Riffenburgh, for her invaluable peer review and expert feedback, which significantly contributed to the enhancement of this article.



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