image of a fly swatter squishing "words"An estimated 80 million U.S. adults have low or limited health literacy, aka the skills necessary to properly manage their health and prevent disease. That’s not due to a lack of intelligence or commitment to good health. It’s because they’re often unfamiliar with medical speak and the healthcare buzzwords that have taken our industry by storm. Are you one of the offenders?

Breaking down buzzwords

As marketers, we can be guilty of peppering our copy with buzzwords that make us sound in the know and our healthcare systems cutting edge. But as the above statistic illustrates, the problem with buzzwords is they limit your reach. If you want to effectively communicate your news to the widest audience possible, simple, plain language is best.

Here, a roundup of healthcare buzzwords and what to use instead. Many of these words — and their alternatives — are highlighted in our Word of the Week video series. Check it out on Facebook or YouTube for more in-depth examples and explanations.

1. Precision medicine

Precision medicine is an emerging field often defined with highly complex terms and other healthcare buzzw0rds — things like genomes and biomarkers. You don’t have to get clinical, giving in-depth explanations of all that. Keep it simple and describe precision medicine as customized or individualized medicine. It’s a person-specific approach to medical care rather than a one-size-fits-all.

2. Social determinants of health

Social determinants of health is a hot topic in healthcare today, thanks — at least in part — to COVID-19, a virus that seems to affect certain populations more than others. But research shows that the term doesn’t resonate with people. That holds true even when the phrase is used with a lot of context. And it’s not hard to see why. “Social determinants of health” sounds academic, even pseudo-science-y. When you want to talk about social determinants of health (and we hope you do, as they have a huge impact on health today), refer to them as the nonmedical factors that influence health — things like your income, race, gender, education, where you live, how available healthcare is in your community, etc.

3. Complementary vs. alternative vs. integrative healthcare

It’s easy to confuse all three terms, but there are distinctions. If you’re going to use any of these healthcare buzzwords, make sure you properly define them. Complementary healthcare mixes traditional and nontraditional medicine. Alternative healthcare is used in place of conventional/traditional healthcare. And integrative healthcare combines traditional and nontraditional healthcare with an emphasis on treating the whole person, not one specific organ or body part. For example, integrative healthcare may involve conventional medicine to treat the disease as well as things like psychological or nutritional care to improve overall well-being.

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4. Value-based healthcare

Here’s a term you’ve probably tossed around more than a few times. But what is value? Is it worth? Is it ethics? And how exactly does it factor into healthcare? Your readers would like to know. Patient well-being is the hallmark of value-based healthcare, and providers and healthcare systems are rewarded for things like low hospital readmission rates and fewer hospital-acquired infections. Explaining all that simply can be a challenge, but it helps to remember that value-based care is simply healthcare that centers on patient outcomes and how well medical providers can improve those outcomes.

5. Disease mitigation measures

Saying “disease mitigation measures” sounds a whole lot more sophisticated than “strategies that reduce the spread of germs.” But use the latter, not the former, and make it infinitely more accessible by providing examples of what those strategies are — face masks, handwashing, vaccines, etc.

6. Comprehensive

There’s nary a healthcare marketer who hasn’t overused this word. But what exactly does it mean? Thorough? Complete? Inclusive? The word can have slightly different meanings to different people. It’s better to ditch nebulous words like “comprehensive” (and wellness, excellence, robust, optimal, impactful, advanced, holistic, significant, etc.) in your healthcare writing and just say what you mean.

7. Quarantine

Yet another word we can thank COVID-19 for delivering to our doorstep is quarantine. When using the word, which can be confused with “isolation” and “social distancing,” define what quarantine means — the separation or restriction of movement of people who have been exposed to a contagious disease to observe them and see if they become sick.

8. Acute Care

Acute care sounds dynamic, but essentially it’s healthcare used to treat a person for a brief but serious condition. Another way to refer to acute care is hospital care.

9. Learning health systems

Learning health systems is a term that’s creeping more and more into our lexicon. There’s no synonym for this one, so when you use it, define it. The University of Michigan Medical School describes it as “organizations or networks that continuously self-study and adapt using data and analytics to generate knowledge, engage stakeholders and implement behavior change to transform practice.”

10. eRx

Telehealth is a current health trend in America, and it’s given us a slew of new noodles to add to the alphabet soup that is healthcare communication. When writing about eRx, say “electronic prescribing” — and then describe it as a way for prescribers to send a prescription to a pharmacy through a computer, tablet, etc., no hard copy required.

11. Integrated healthcare

The healthcare buzzword “integrated healthcare” can have a few different uses, which makes the case for always defining it. Sometimes, it can refer to a system that includes hospitals, doctors and sometimes health insurance. Another, more visual way of describing integrated healthcare is to use the term interprofessional (or team) healthcare. It lets the reader know there’s more than one healthcare provider — for example, a general physician, specialists, mental health workers, pharmacists, social workers and others — collaborating to help improve all aspects of your health.

12. Attenuated Vaccine

There’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy in this country, and at least some of it has to do with a lack of understanding of how most vaccines work. When it comes to writing about vaccines, you’ll do a great service to your readers by keeping terms simple. Rather than saying an attenuated vaccine, you can say, “a vaccine that contains a live but weakened version of the virus.” According to the CDC, none of the COVID-19 vaccines used in this country contain the live virus.

Read more: What is accessible language, and how do you write it?

Beyond healthcare buzzwords: Deciphering medical jargon

Pop quiz: Is an abrasion a cut or a scape? Is a laceration a puncture or a tear? How does an acute illness differ from a chronic one?

Most people don’t know the answers to these questions, which means you’ll lose them if you use them in your messaging. When you’re writing patient education material, stick to what’s known as “living room language”—the language you would use if you were speaking to a friend in your living room. Here, just a few examples.

Instead of thisUse this
Acute illnessAn illness that starts suddenly but doesn’t last long
AnalgesicPain reliever
BenignNot cancer/noncancerous
DegenerativeGetting worse
HypertensionHigh blood pressure
LacerationTear or cut
Myocardial infarctionHeart attack
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)COVID-19
SubcutaneousUnder the skin
SystemicWhole body
TopicalOn the surface of the body/on the skin

More plain language best practices

Okay, by now you know to avoid healthcare buzzwords and medicalese whenever possible. But what are some other tips for making your copy accessible and relatable when you’re writing about medical conditions or current hot topics in healthcare? Here, some best practices from the National Resource Center for Health IT.

  1. Don’t write above a 6th-grade reading level. Most health education materials are written at a 10th-grade reading level, which is too high for the average American.
  2. Keep your sentences short (40-50 characters) and use only one-to-two syllable words.
  3. Use active rather than passive voice (say “Take this medication with food” rather than “This medication should be taken with food”).
  4. Be conversational. Write your copy as if you’re talking to a friend.
  5. When you can’t avoid medical jargon, explain what it is.
  6. Instead of using percentages, consider using numbers. For example, instead of saying 10% of people XYZ, say one in 10 people XYZ.
  7. Break up copy with bullets and numbers. It’s easier to take in information when it is distilled into chunks.
  8. Use graphics to help explain your copy.
  9. Make sure your copy is culturally inclusive and sensitive to different kinds of readers.

Where to learn more

The focus on health literacy has taken off in the last few years. And that means plenty of resources are available to support you in your quest to write about current healthcare trends in America — without resorting to healthcare industry buzzwords and medical jargon. Some to investigate include:

Health—and healthcare—are complicated fields, full of acronyms and technical terms. Don’t make things harder for your readers by muddying your message with buzzwords only a chosen few know. Keep things simple, succinct, and service-oriented. After all, as healthcare marketers, our message is only as good as the words we use to relay it.

Create healthcare content that speaks to your audience. WriterGirl’s healthcare writers are devoted to plain language and clear healthcare communication. We can help you craft custom content that reaches your audience with a message that resonates. Contact our team to learn more.