Monday, December 20, 2010

Health Literacy: taking a closer look at a central strategy

Who would argue against plain language and simple language?
Nike's "Just Do it" 

"If you see something, say something." NYC MTA
"No Smoking"

Or, would they?

Is it possible that the compact to create clear and simple health information has over-promised - not lived up to its billing? What if the complexity of health information in the first half of the 21st century requires more than simple representations of science, medicine and decision-making? What if one could demonstrate that while the intentions to simplify are good, many of the executions are bad? What if simplification has yielded a public health communication by subtraction, the consequences of which are that we are unwittingly perpetuating limited access to the complex and nuanced information necessary for patients and publics to make informed decisions about health. And added to this, what if we could demonstrate that un-interrogated surface level simplification of information is also likely to perpetuate an unequal access to society’s larger information commons. This essay focuses on what rules of clear and simple are the right ones to produce a readable usable text that will improve comprehension and engagement with health information. This essay explores the question and proposes two core principles of sociolinguistics that can be useful in recalibrating the role of simplifying health language. Think of it as a piece of architectural criticism.

Here is my new article "The Simplicity Complex: Exploring Simplified Health Messages in a Complex World" appearing in Health Promotion International.
Link to abstract ijkey=flV5FbIG1aDft9c&keytype=ref


  1. As a family physician with a newfound interest in health literacy, I was very happy to come across your blog. I, myself, am looking for practical ways to improve patient care by addressing health literacy in everyday practice. From a clinical standpoint, I've found that simplified words are not enough, and that learning occurs using various media. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Christina:

    I have read your and Andrew Pleasant's book and found it to be very helpful. I have been a community health practitioner for over 20 years and think that health literacy can be a useful framework for addressing personal and public health knowledge, attitudes and behaviors.

    Most health literacy experts I know have one foot in healthcare and another in academia, which I think, is as it should be.

    After my introduction to health literacy, I have pursued interpersonal health communication and cultural literacy to augment my analysis of health literacy issues. In my view, health literacy has thus far neglected a proper grounding in theory and has all but ignored cultural context in both the interpersonal health communication realm and in the public health context.

    What are your thoughts? I really think we need to take this head on, front and center or health literacy will be watered down into a knowledge management endeavor....