Plain Language for Consumer Health

Plain Language for Consumer Health

Information Resources

By Evelyn Cunico, M.A., M.S.
Posted April 30, 2015

Plain Writing Act

On October 13, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (H.R. 946/Public Law 111-274). This law requires federal government agencies to write communication materials for the public in easy-to-understand language. For example, federal government agencies must write federal tax returns and Veterans Administration forms in plain language.

Consumer health information from the federal government must also be written in plain language. For example, the National Institutes of Health , which is the nation’s medical research agency, in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a good place to start, to find consumer health information written in plain language.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language, also called, “plain English,” is defined by results. Plain language is easy for you to read, to understand, and to use. Plain language respects the reader. Using plain language avoids creating barriers that set you apart from the persons with whom you are communicating. Using plain language also saves time and money.

Plain language tells you what you need to know, without using unnecessary words. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took a six-page article and replaced it with a single, fold-out brochure, conveying the same information. Here is an excerpt:

Before

“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.”

After

“Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.”

 Health Literacy

The federal government Plain Language website includes web pages titled, “Popular Topics: Improving Health Literacy,” which includes a section called, “Federal Agency Links about Health Literacy.”

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. The Plain Language web pages suggest that you think of literacy as the ability to understand and communicate information. In this context, it is useful to think of health literacy as the ability to understand and communicate health information.

When you read health communication materials written in plain language, you are developing your health literacy.

When you talk to your medical doctors or when you search for health information at a library or on the Internet, ask three questions:

  • What is my main problem?
  • What do I need to do?
  • Why is it important for me to do this?

The goal of plain language in health is to give you reliable, science-based information, so you can make informed decisions about staying healthy and seeking medical care.

 NIH News in Health

Federal government agencies have well-researched information that has been vigorously reviewed by scientists and medical doctors.

For example, NIH News in Health, a monthly newsletter from the National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is reviewed by NIH medical experts and based on research conducted either by NIH scientists or by NIH grantees at universities and medical schools across the country.

 For a free subscription, see the “About” page of NIH News in Health.

 References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Health Literacy. “Plain Language: Develop Materials.”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Health Literacy. Plain Language Health Literacy Training. Lesson 3 Applying Health Literacy to Practice. “Plain Language and Effective Health Messages.”
(Accessed 14 April 2015)

 Food and Drug Administration. Plain Language. “Plain Language Principles.”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

 Food and Drug Administration. “Plain Writing: It’s the Law!”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

 National Institutes of Health. NIH News in Health. A monthly newsletter from the National Institutes of Health. “About NIH News in Health.”
(Accessed 30 April 2015)

 National Institutes of Health. NIH News in Health. A monthly newsletter from the National Institutes of Health. “Sharing Reliable Health Information: 10 Years of NIH News in Health.” April 2015.
(Accessed 25 April 2015)

National Institutes of Health. “Plain Language at NIH.”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

Plain Language dot gov. Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public. “Document Checklist for Plain Language.”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

Plain Language dot gov. Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public. “Popular Topics: Improving Health Literacy.”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

 Plain Language dot gov. Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public. Plain Language: Before and After — Losing Weight HHS Brochure. “Public Health Service, Department of Health and Human Services. Brochure.”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

Plain Language dot gov. Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public. “The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN).
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

 Plain Language dot gov. Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public. “What is Plain Language?”
(Accessed 13 April 2015)

 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Health Literacy Fact Sheet: Health Literacy Basics. “Quick Guide to Health Literacy.”
(Accessed 14 2015)

 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Plain Language: A Promising Strategy for Clearly Communicating Health Information and Improving Health Literacy.”
(Accessed 14 April 2015)