Effective Health Communication


Effective Health Communication

Public health campaigns. Health education and research. Provider visits. What do these have in common?

Health communication.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of health communication. Whether it’s promoting the COVID-19 vaccination, teaching about type 2 diabetes, or recruiting for clinical trials — health communication is everywhere.

This article gives an overview of effective health communication. We’ll explore some ways to share health information. We’ll discuss the meaning and impact of effective health communication. We’ll also address some barriers to sharing health information, and ways to overcome them.

health communication graphic

What are some ways to communicate health information? 

Let’s start by exploring some ways to share health information.

Verbal communication

Verbal communication is communicating with words. (Note: While “verbal communication” is often used to mean speech, it includes both oral and written communication. In this article, we’ll use “verbal” to mean both speech and writing.)

Oral communication is sharing information through spoken words (speech). It can occur live and in person, such as during provider visits, when providers and patients speak to each other face to face. Oral communication can also happen live, but at a distance — such as by phone or online platform. And it can be used in audio or video recordings, such as podcasts or audiobooks.

Written communication is sharing information through written words (text). It appears in print materials, such as handouts, posters, and books. It also comes in electronic form, such as email and text messages, social media posts, website copy, patient portals, and captions.

Nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is communicating without words. It includes body cues and design.

Body cues are ways people communicate, often without even realizing it. Examples of body cues include eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and postures. Body cues may be affected by proximity, touch, and voice tone or volume. They can make oral communication more effective. They work especially well in person. But they can also work at a distance, as in live or recorded videos.

Design is the art of shaping the way text and images (such as photos, picture, and charts) look in print or electronic materials. It includes formatting text with font, color, and spacing. It involves making, choosing, and formatting images. Design also includes laying out text and images.

Mixed (verbal and nonverbal) communication

Verbal and nonverbal communication are often used together. For instance, a pie chart of type 2 diabetes causes (design – nonverbal) may also have a title and labels (written – verbal). During an office visit, a healthcare provider may talk (oral – verbal), make eye contact (body cues – nonverbal), and show a picture (design – nonverbal). Likewise, a recorded webinar on birth control options may have audio and video files, as well as written captions.

What is effective health communication?

We’ve looked at some ways to share health information. But what makes health communication effective?

Effective health communication promotes health literacy    

Effective health communication enables people 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 communication is a health literacy universal precaution

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

Why? Health information is complex. Many people 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, as someone who provides health information, strive to communicate as well as possible every time, with every audience.

What is the impact of effective health communication?

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

Better patient self-management = better health outcomes

Effective health communication 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 health communication 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

Effective health communication also boosts patient satisfaction. That is, it leads to higher scores 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. Better scores mean higher rewards.

Fewer legal problems for healthcare providers and organizations

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

What are some barriers to effective health communication?

We’ve looked at why effective health communication is so important. Now let’s discuss some things that get in its way.

Medical words

You may be comfortable using medical words such as “hypertension” and “idiopathic.” You probably learned these words through your education or training. You may use them when you communicate with other people in your field. Your audience, however, may find these words confusing.

Language differences

You and your audience may not use the same language, or may not use it with the same ease. Language differences can make communication all the more challenging.

Cultural differences

You and your audience may come from different cultures, resulting in different beliefs and practices. These differences can make it harder to understand and trust each other.

Disabilities and other challenges

Some members of your audience may have disabilities and other challenges that make it harder to communicate about health. For instance, they may have trouble seeing, hearing, talking, reading, or thinking.

Low health literacy

As we’ve discussed, many people have low health literacy. That means they have trouble finding, understanding, and using health information.

Complexity of health topics

Health topics are complex, and the knowledge base is always changing. As a result, you may have trouble sharing health information in a way that your audience can understand and use.

Lack of time

Good health communication takes time. Yet your employer may limit how much time you spend on health communication.

What are some strategies for effective health communication?

We’ve looked at some barriers to effective health communication. Now let’s discuss some ways to overcome them.

Use a tailored approach for all types of communication

As a health communicator, it’s your job to communicate effectively with your audience. Therefore, tailor communication to your audience’s needs and preferences. Do this for all types of communication: oral and written communication, as well as body cues and design.

Use effective oral and written communication

Here are some tips for speaking and writing:

  • Use simple, everyday words. Avoid using unusual words, medical jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations. If you must use challenging words, spell them out or define them on first use. This is called using plain language.

  • Be friendly. Pretend you’re communicating with friends. Speak or write directly to your audience by using the word “you.”

  • Be brief. Don’t overwhelm your audience with health information. Instead, focus on the few key points they need to know.

  • Give action steps. Tell your audience clearly what you want them to do.

  • Use examples and stories. These can help you explain tough concepts. Plus, they engage your audience.

  • Organize information. Put information in a logical order. Start with the most important information.

  • Introduce and summarize. Start by saying what you’ll be covering. Close by summarizing key points.

Use effective oral communication

Here are some tips for speaking:

  • Be kind. Consider your listener’s thoughts and feelings.

  • Treat your listeners with respect. Honor their dignity as human beings. Avoid making assumptions. Instead, treat each person as an individual with unique needs.

  • Take it slow. Speak at a moderate pace. Pause often. This gives your listener a chance to make sense of the health information.

  • Invite questions. If you’re speaking to people live (in person or at a distance), encourage them to ask questions. Say something like: “What questions do you have for me today?”

  • Use teach-back. If you’re a healthcare provider, use teach-back near the end of a health visit to make sure you communicated clearly. Teach-back is a test of you — not your patient. This method is shown in the box.

How to use teach-back

Teach-back has three steps: 

    1. Explain the health information.

    2. Check for understanding.

    3. Explain the health information more clearly, if needed.

Use effective written communication

Here are some tips for writing:

  • Use short sentences and paragraphs. Readers can get lost in a sea of words. Breaking your ideas down into short sentences and paragraphs is a better way to make your ideas clear. Focus each sentence or paragraph on one idea.

  • Use lists. Where it makes sense, use numbered and bulleted lists (like this one). Lists break text into chunks that are easy to digest and remember. Try to limit lists to no more than seven items.

  • Use headings and subheadings. Headings and subheadings (like the one above this list) tell readers what a section is about. You can use them to guide readers. Some people read only headings and subheadings. So make sure they contain useful information.

Use effective body cues

Here are some tips for using body cues:

  • Be friendly. Speak in a warm tone of voice. Also, smile and make eye contact (if appropriate).

  • Be a good listener. When your audience speaks, pay attention, and don’t interrupt.

Use effective design

Here are some tips for design:

  • Make text easier to understand. For instance, choose a font that is easy to read.

  • Make text easier to use. For instance, use headings to guide readers.

  • Choose images wisely. For instance, choose relevant images that show the desired action.

  • Use images wisely.

    For instance, label charts and graphs.

This article gives an overview of effective health communication. Here’s a quick recap.

Ways to communicate health information
  • Verbal (oral and written) communication 

  • Nonverbal communication (body cues and design)

  • Mixed (verbal and nonverbal) communication

Meaning of effective health communication
  • Effective health communication promotes health literacy. It’s a universal health literacy precaution.

Impact of effective health communication
  • 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.

Barriers to effective health communication

  • Medical words

  • Language and cultural differences

  • Disabilities and other challenges

  • Low health literacy

  • Complexity of health topics

  • Lack of time 

Strategies for effective health communication

Tips for all types of health communication

  • Tailor communication to your audience’s needs and preferences.

Tips for oral and written communication

  • Use simple, everyday words. 

  • Be friendly and brief. 

  • Give action steps.

  • Use examples and stories.

  • Organize information.

  • Introduce and summarize.

Tips for oral communication

  • Be kind.

  • Treat your listeners with respect.

  • Take it slow.

  • Invite questions. 

  • Use teach-back.

Tips for written communication

  • Use short sentences and paragraphs. 

  • Use lists, headings, and subheadings. 

Tips for body cues

  • Be friendly. 

  • Be a good listener.

Tips for design

  • Make text easier to understand and use. 

  • Choose and use images wisely. 

We extend our sincere gratitude to Carolyn Cutilli and Sophia Wong, for their invaluable peer review and expert feedback, which significantly contributed to the enhancement of this article.