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Short words can be confusing too

October 19, 2010

Health Literacy Month logoOctober is Health Literacy Month. Health literacy, as defined by the Canadian Public Health Association, is the “ability to access, understand and act on information for health.”

Health literacy is not about being able to read nor is it related to the years of education one may have. Being health literate requires a complex set of reading, listening, analytical and decision-making skills and the ability to apply these skills to a variety of health situations. Now, imagine applying these skills having just heard “it’s cancer” or while you’re trying to read the medicine’s package insert as your sick baby screams at a pitch you, the dog and the neighbourhood can hear. Your health literacy level will likely have plummeted.

While health literacy isn’t only about words, using plain language in copy or in consultation is essential. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN)  describes plain language as:

“communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:
* Find what they need;
* Understand what they find; and
* Use what they find to meet their needs.”

Hence plain language writers spend a lot of time distilling complex medical information into easy-to-understand lay terms. I suspect for most people this conjures an image of breaking down long medical terms into smaller bite-size words. Yes, that’s part of it. But short words can be confusing too. Take for example words such as course, peak, presents, trigger and wound. Out of a medical context, these words have very different meanings.

Let me illustrate using an example from colleague Kathy Kastner (@ability4life):

Kathy shared with her chiropractor that she had shifted the way she walked to ease the pain in her hip. The chiropractor replied, “Ah, you adjusted your gait.” Despite the consultation setting, Kathy understood “gate.” Her mind’s eye left the office and scanned the property surrounding her house. As Kathy puzzled over what gate the chiropractor could be referring to, she was deaf to any further comments from the healthcare professional.

See Kathy’s post Health Literacy: beyond reading level where you’ll find more seemingly simple words that can be potentially confusing in a medical setting.

Do you have an experience to share where a short word befuddled health communication?

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