Health Literacy: Your Health is in Your Communication

In a previous article about health literacy, "Warning: Your doctor and pharmacist's ineffective communication may be dangerous to your health", we discussed the importance of using plain English to ensure comprehension.

As a team member and contributor to the Travel Fit Club program, I have been thinking about a discussion I would like to host at a senior center. The discussion focuses on health literacy and how your health is in your communication.

Based on my experience in communicating with doctors while living abroad, I understand the challenges that accompany communicating with health professionals. Health settings can be stressful and scary, whether you are at a doctor's office, in the hospital, or at an imaging center for scans. Add specialized vocabulary, use of jargon, legal forms, complex procedures and processes, and you have the recipe for communication failure.

Studies show that if you are a typical patient, you remember less than half of what your doctor tries to explain.

Being literate means being informed and having knowledge and understanding. If you do not understand, how can you make the appropriate decisions about your health?

The three biggest obstacles to understanding are:

- The amount of time you spend with your doctor to be able to understand information.

- The embarrassment you feel when you do not understand what a doctor or a health professional says.

- The difference in power when you are half naked and you have a doctor in a white coat in front of you.

Limited health literacy affects everyone, regardless of age, race, income, or education. However, research shows that older adults, people with limited education, and people with limited English proficiency are more affected. For non-native English speakers, understanding may be compromised due to specialized vocabulary that health professionals use to communicate health information.

What can you do to be proactive to ensure you understand when you communicate with a doctor or a health professional?

Take the initiative!

- Plan ahead by making a list of questions and concerns to take with you to the doctor. Be sure you also include a list of the medication you are taking at the moment.

- If the doctor says something you do not understand, ask the doctor to repeat in simpler language.

- Take notes or take along an advocate who can take notes for you.

- If you are given a new set of instructions, repeat them back to the doctor to confirm your understanding.

- If the doctor gives you a new device to use, demonstrate how you think you are to use it.

- Insist that conversations about serious medical matters take place when you are dressed and in the doctor’s office.

Always remember that you are responsible for your communication, and ultimately, your health. By taking responsibility and actively participating in the decision-making process about your medical treatment, you can work with your doctor for your highest good.

The more you understand, the better you will be able to make decisions that affect your health.

You may reprint or publish this article if you provide my name, contact information, and website link at the end of the article.

Proud Supporter of the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure Walk Against Breast Cancer

From Deb's fundraising page:

"In this past year and a half my family has gone through a lot of struggles and a lot of pain. I have had family members from both sides battling cancer. I have a friend who spent all of 2009 battling breast cancer. I got tired of feeling helpless to change anything, so I decided to try and make a difference."

Your English Success is proud to support Deb and the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure walk against breast cancer. Wishing you the best during your training and walking journey, Deb!

People like you make a difference.

UPDATE: Deb successfully completed the 60-mile walk on November 21, 2010. She raised $3,000 and the total amount of money raised in San Diego was $10.6 million.

Plain Language in Plain English: A Book and Reference Guide to Use Plain Language Effectively


What is plain language? And how can I use it effectively?

Plain Language in Plain English clearly explains the fundamental elements of plain language and its benefits for everyone inside and outside the workplace. Its 18 international contributors, all leaders in the movement, are led by Cheryl Stephens and her 20 years of experience in promoting plain language.

I had the pleasure of being a contributing author to this book, working collaboratively with Cheryl and her team of contributors.

It was a wonderful experience and the effort and expertise have transformed into a book and reference guide to use plain language effectively.

In the book, you will discover the principles and use of plain language from the inside out, from how to encourage and implement a plain language policy at work to identifying your audience and defining your purpose to captivate your readers’ and listeners’ attention and understanding.

Moreover, Plain Language in Plain English uses empathy, compassion, scientific research, and proven techniques for you and your organization to help people understand your important messages. From organizational guidelines, healthcare awareness, legal documents, and marketing, to effective speaking strategies for presentations and meetings, Plain Language in Plain English is a comprehensive tool to have in your “communication toolbox”.

Webcast and Podcast Recording of How to Communicate With Older Adults on One Minute How-To

"8 Keys to Effective Communication with Older Adults", an article which was posted earlier on Your English Success, discussed helpful points to communicate compassionately with older adults. You can now listen to the most important tips, thanks to the One Minute How-To website.

One Minute How-To invited me to create a webcast and podcast on "How to Communicate With Older Adults". I deeply appreciated and enjoyed the experience. Thank you, George!

You may listen to the webcast or podcast by:
  • Clicking here to listen to the webcast on One Minute How-To.

  • Clicking here to download and listen to the MP3 file (right-click on the link and select "save as").

Guest Speaker: Let’s talk about Plain Language for websites, by Kate Harrison Whiteside, Key Advice

What do plain language and websites have in common? Not enough, I say. As we start a new year and think about resolutions and goals, it seems a good time to make a commitment to ensuring your website content is comprehendible – to your visitors.

Websites are as a common as cars! A little tune-up is usually all that is needed to correct problems. Offer your visitors a smooth ride by using design consistency. Support this with repeated navigational terms and they will be able to get around quickly and easily. If your web platform doesn’t include a site map function – think of it as your site’s GPS – create one. Being able to find your way around a site makes it a satisfying experience – and gives a reason to come back and to brag about your site to others.

Think of each page as a destination! Begin with clear titles and a brief, enticing description of what’s on the page. Create interest and deliver what you promise. Remember that holiday cottage you rented, or that resort that caught your attention in the brochure? Visiting your site is a journey, and your readers deserve a memorable experience – for the right reasons.

Use blogs as your benchmark. They have become one of the most popular online destinations – for both personal and professional use – because they were completely designed for users incorporating simplicity.

Here are five characteristics of blogs you – and your site visitors – can benefit from:

1. Easy search and navigation tools – blogs use categories and archives.

2. Friendly tone – speak to your readers in their language – plain language.

3. Interactivity – people want to be part of your site – forums, comments.

4. Multimedia messages – there is no doubt video is proving powerful and popular.

5. Links – make it easy for visitors to get to your pages, social media sites, or associate sites.

Now is the best time to review and re-launch your site. By using plain language guidelines, you can provide a value-added service to your visitors. Involve your users in the re-design. Get their feedback. Make 2010 a client-focus year and start with a plain language audit of your site! It will speak volumes, and keep your visitors coming back for more.

Kate Harrison Whiteside, Key Advice (, is co-author of Plain Language Websites, with Cheryl Stephens. It is available via and on Amazon. Her business, Key Advice, provides web content and social media advice, training and services. Kate moved to the UK from Canada, to be with her husband and step-son, in 1998 - when web sites and blogs were leading the online revolution. Now, a decade later, social media is the new wave! Surf’s up! Follow Kate on; become a fan on Facebook "Key Advice" Page; or read her blog,