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Plain Language: Why is it Necessary in Healthcare?

Older woman talking with her doctor.

Former Vice President Al Gore once said, "Plain language is a civil right." He led the plain language initiative in the 1990s, resulting in various acts requiring plain language in government documents. The most recent advancement included the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which ensures all public government documents communicate clearly. 

While these acts primarily affect governmental bodies, the idea of plain language has permeated all industries and is becoming a new communication standard. It's particularly critical in healthcare, as medical topics are notoriously complex. 

Keep reading to learn more about plain language and its importance in healthcare. 

Plain Language 101:

Plain language means communicating in a clear, simple, and concise manner. It refers to taking complex ideas and expressing them in terms people can understand the first time they read or hear them.

Most people appreciate plain language, especially in today's fast-paced world. More than anything, clear language is effective. It gets to the point quickly without embellishments or overly complex words. 

Plain Language Can Improve Patient Communication

Businesses and organizations across diverse industries are adopting plain language to reach a broader audience base and clearly explain complex ideas. It's an effective marketing tactic and leadership approach. 

But in healthcare, plain language is so much more than a strategy. It can ultimately mean the difference between quality patient care and high hospital readmission rates. Here's why. 

Low Health Literacy

According to the first National Assessment of Adult Literacy, conducted in 2003, only 12% of U.S. adults had proficient health literacy. The majority (53%) only had intermediate literacy, and the rest (36%) had basic or below basic proficiency. That means that the vast majority of patients have a limited understanding of healthcare terminology and the healthcare system in general.

These numbers were much lower across certain ethnic minority groups, and the languages spoken before starting school also impacted the literacy score. Adults who only spoke English scored the highest — but still within the intermediate level. 

Those who spoke English and another language scored slightly lower, while those who spoke only another language had an average score just barely within the intermediate level. The specific scores varied for each language. For example, those who only spoke Spanish before starting school scored the lowest and had a below-basic proficiency.

Potential Misunderstandings

Since most people have less-than-proficient health literacy, misunderstandings are highly likely. And misunderstandings in healthcare can be detrimental. 

2019 study found a strong correlation between high health literacy and proper self-care. Those with low health literacy experience a higher hospitalization and mortality rate. 

While solving low health literacy would be ideal, it's connected to various socioeconomic factors like income and education attainment level that require a far-reaching solution — one that could take a long time to implement. 

In the meantime, healthcare providers can focus on meeting patients where they are and providing patient-centered care. That includes using plain language that all patients can understand, both in written and verbal communication. 

Easier Interpretations and Translations

When healthcare providers use plain language in every step of the patient journey, it makes it much easier for linguists to communicate the information. 

Now, qualified medical linguists already have a high health literacy proficiency. They can effectively understand and interpret medical jargon and complex ideas. But the patients receiving this information may not have such a high proficiency. Statistically speaking, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy data shows that those who grew up speaking another language — or more than one language — have a lower proficiency.

So even if the interpreters flawlessly communicate everything the healthcare provider says, the patient may still need help understanding the information. The interpreter might need to simplify the language and terminology for the patient, which creates more work for them. Or the patient may not express any confusion and leave the appointment still not understanding everything. 

The best solution is for the healthcare provider to communicate in plain language with every patient — especially those who use an interpreter. It helps ensure better understanding across language barriers and makes the linguist's job much easier. 

Invest in Quality Language Services to Provide Patient-Centered Care

Using plain language is the first step in meeting patients where they are and offering exceptional care. The next step is to remove any and all language barriers with the help of qualified medical interpreters. Schedule a demo with GLOBO today to discover how we can help you offer better patient-focused care to all of your patients, no matter what language they speak.

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