By Melanie Graham

Whether a patient is preparing for surgery or following instructions for a new medicine, understanding health information is critical to that patient’s well-being. If instructions are not clear, it could mean unnecessary hospital visits and additional medical care and expense.

Patients with lower health literacy were more likely to have longer hospital stays after surgery, according to a recent study published in JAMA Surgery. The study surveyed more than 1,200 patients who underwent major abdominal surgery.

Additionally, other research indicates that patients who understand their discharge instructions are 30 percent less likely to be re-admitted or visit the emergency room after their procedure.

Read more: Why current patients are your best customers – and most passionate brand advocates

Health literacy, according to JAMA, is “an individual’s ability to obtain, process, and understand health information to make informed decisions and function effectively in the health care environment.” As healthcare writers and marketers, it’s our job to make sure that health information is as easy to “obtain, process, and understand” as possible.

What can you do to improve readability and understanding in patient education materials? Here are some tips:

  • Important information should come first. Many people may only read the first couple of words or sentences on a webpage or handout. It’s important they get the critical information they need before moving on. Listing the important information at the top can also draw the reader in and keep them engaged.
  • Focus on actions. Use active voice. Tell the patient what to do and how to do it. Don’t bog them down with unnecessary details.
  • Avoid statistics. Loading a document with numbers and percentages isn’t going to help patients understand how to take care of their wound after surgery, or how they should prepare for their procedure. Statistics can bury critical information and make a document seem complicated.
  • Keep paragraphs and sentences short. Avoid compound sentences and details the patient doesn’t need to know. Keeping the content short makes it easier to digest and less overwhelming.
  • Use lists and bullet points. Lists draw attention and help readers process information quickly. If you have a list of important foods or medications a patient should avoid before surgery, a bulleted list can help a reader find the information without sorting through multiple paragraphs.
  • Ditch the medical jargon. As marketers, we know the importance of writing for our audience. Keep that in mind when crafting patient materials. Use language and terminology the average patient or reader will understand and relate to. The general rule of thumb is to aim for a 5th-8th grade reading level.
  • Keep terminology and language consistent. Your patient information should follow one style guide. Inconsistent style (such as using two different terms for one procedure) can confuse readers and make the information harder to understand.
  • Consider sharing content in different formats. Each person learns differently; some of us are visual learners, while others may prefer to read or hear instructions. Try presenting your content in multiple formats, such as video, infographics, or Slideshares. This may help you reach and educate a wider patient audience.
  • Make sure the content is accurate. Remember, someone’s health and well-being may depend on the information you provide. Use reputable medical sources to verify your information, and make sure there is a clinical review process before the information is available to patients. If possible, include information at the bottom of the document noting when the information was last reviewed

Read more: Why patient-friendly language matters

These tips are a good place to start, and the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion offers even more information on health literacy for online publications. You can also check out the National Institutes of Health free plain language training online. Or, try these other tools for easy-to-read content.

What tips do you have for improving health literacy in patient content? Share your ideas with us in the comments section below.