Health Literacy: The Vital Role of Plain Language in Health Communications

Updated on January 23, 2022

By Kinte Ibbott, Vice President, Health Communications at MAXIMUS

Health literacy, the ability to obtain, communicate, understand and act on basic health information, plays an important role in ensuring all Americans can make informed decisions about their health. The need to provide information that helps people make the best decisions puts health literacy and plain language at the forefront of any health communication—be it provider information, prescription drug changes, overall benefits or managed care updates.

There are many different factors that come into play when tackling clear health communications: What channels do people in the target audience prefer? What language do they speak? And, perhaps most importantly, how well do they read and comprehend? Knowing the answers to these questions is fundamental for communicating with diverse populations. A 65-year-old employee might go to a very different place for information than a recent college graduate. However, organizations will often use the same channels and language to communicate with these two very different audiences.

To effectively reach all populations, we need to meet them where they are and write in plain language. We need to speak their language and engage with them on the platform they prefer— whether that is a written notice, a magazine article, through social media or a text message. Easy-to-read health communications are more likely to reach everyone and result in better outcomes, more efficient use of services, and lower administrative costs.

Here are a few best practices to consider before communicating health information: 

Tailor your outreach to different groups’ needs: In order to effectively reach a target population you need to ensure you are adjusting your outreach to meet them where and how they gather information. If most employees prefer internal email, then that should be your preferred method of communication. If your target population really only engages by mobile phone, then communications should come through that channel. Surveys can help reveal the best way to get important health information to those you serve.

Understand the obstacles: People who have difficulty accessing and understanding health information may not ask for help, or even tell you they didn’t understand your message. Finding out what is preventing your message from reaching your audience will help you address specific needs. For example, you may not be aware that you need someone who speaks Spanish or Mandarin involved in your health communications, but that insight can make a huge difference. Also, testing your materials with members of your target audience can reveal barriers to comprehension that you may not have realized were there.

Provide readable materials: To ensure that all groups have equal access to information, it’s important to produce materials—including notices, forms and applications—that are easy to read and understand. Use plain language and adapted translations that are culturally sensitive and appropriate.

As a nation, our health care system has been ranked as the worst among industrialized nations five times in a row. At the MAXIMUS Center for Health Literacy we believe a key component to changing this is to raise awareness about the importance of health literacy. We must take collective action so all citizens receive and understand the information they need to make informed decisions about their health.

Mr. Ibbott serves as the Vice President of Health Communications at MAXIMUS. He is an accomplished public health leader with more than 16 years of health communications experience consulting to government agencies, non-profits, industry and commercial organizations. Presently, Mr. Ibbott leads the MAXIMUS Center for Health Literacy and manages a team of health communications experts, researchers, writers, graphic designers, translators, and digital and social media experts who work to develop communications that improve public health programs, empower consumers and foster healthier communities. Mr. Ibbott is responsible for the overall strategy, technical delivery and operation of the Center. In addition to his role at MAXIMUS, Mr. Ibbott serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Health Systems Administration at Georgetown University.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.