From Angela Williams, Editor, Palio
A mere 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills, according to the 2003 National Health Assessment of Adult Literacy. Fifty-three percent ranked as having an intermediate health literacy level, and a whopping 35%, or 77 million American adults, were attributed with a basic to below-basic health literacy level. This latter percentage, according to assessment findings, had difficulty with what were deemed common health tasks — following directions on a prescription drug label or adhering to a childhood immunization schedule using a standard chart.
These stats don’t bode well for patient comprehension — or patient health. Especially since health educational materials, such as drug operating instructions, patient brochures, and Web sites, are often written to a tenth-grade reading level (when its low-literate readers may only be able to understand language at a fourth or fifth). Ideally, tools used to boost comprehension for those with low literacy should be used in all patient-directed materials intended for that audience. If they’re not, those materials may not be as (low-literate) reader-friendly as they need to be.
Next time you’re developing patient-directed communications for an audience including low-literate members, consider these 7 best practices for tailoring your message.
- Use the right fonts — and font size. Stick to plain sans serif fonts and vary sizes for emphasis and hierarchy. All type should be at least 12-point font, and leading should be at least 2 points greater than the corresponding font size to enhance readability.
- Shoot for fourth or lower. Whatever your barometer for reading level, be it Flesch-Kincaid, SMOG, or some other readability formula, make sure copy checks in at a fourth-grade level or lower.
- Organize content in a clear, straightforward manner. Structure main points in a logical manner, and make sure supporting points relate clearly. Break up dense amounts of copy using numbered or bulleted lists or simple charts. Call attention to main points with color or bolding.
- Keep it simple. Delete unnecessary words, and minimize use of polysyllabic words, which can sabotage reading level very quickly. Aim for short sentences and simple constructions.
- Say what you mean. Pay attention to your word choice, and draw on common terminology. Language should be literal, not figurative, as should graphics. Pictures and diagrams set beside text can improve comprehension for a low-literacy reader.
- Don’t be afraid of a little repetition. Often, we try to vary language to avoid redundancy, but for a low-literate audience, repetition is key. Opt to use the same word rather than synonyms to avoid confusion and reinforce key ideas or terms.
- Conclude with a call to action. Low-literate readers can be overwhelmed by a lot of content all at once. A simple, closing directive helps them focus on the main takeaway.
Just as you would reasonably create English and Spanish versions of products for English- and Spanish-speaking audiences, consider versioning patient materials geared towards commercial and low-literate audiences, too. Doing so may not only expand your reach to a broader range of patients, but also improve comprehension of disease state, increase appropriate utilization, and foster better disease management in one of your most needy demographics.
Palio is a full-spectrum global pharmaceutical and consumer advertising, marketing, and communications agency that excels in brand creation and specializes in brand strategy, product launches, global marketing, and digital and integrated media.