COVID-19: We’re here for support and guidance. Learn More

Why using simple language in healthcare marketing is so important

Improved communication means improved patient outcomes

By Colin Deval, with Steve Sparks of Wisconsin Health Literacy

Dear Healthcare Marketer –

As a leader in healthcare marketing, you recognize the importance of focusing on the audience, but have you considered the best communications strategies to help that audience understand you? Admit it, our messages can be complex. There are stakeholders, opinions, requirements, jargon you don’t even realize is jargon and details that are simply indecipherable to the average human. To reach and move our audience and to improve outcomes and quality, we must communicate those messages in ways that help our audience understand what they are reading or listening to.

We spoke with Steve Sparks of Wisconsin Health Literacy about the topic of healthcare literacy – communicating so people understand and can manage their care to improve their outcomes.

Here’s what we learned, with recommendations to put in practice immediately.

The problem: “People don’t want to look stupid.”

9 out of 10 Americans have some difficulty with health information. (Unless your eyes deceive you, that’s nearly everyone.)

3 out of 10 Americans really struggle with basic health messages, such as prescription label directions or hospital discharge information.

People who struggle with health literacy are not likely to tell you about it. They may feel embarrassed, like they should understand and don’t want to look stupid. In a doctor’s office or at a nurse’s station, many people will listen and nod without questioning things. In day-to-day life, an individual will read, watch, listen and move on. There are a lot of people who struggle with understanding basic or more complicated information. When you have a message, you don’t know who will struggle with it. A universal approach is best to get that message across. That means communicating to everyone in simple language without trying to figure out who has low health literacy. When you’re trying to build bonds with an audience, it doesn’t help to get too technical about medical credentials, surgical terms or tools, medical conditions or treatment recommendations.

Everyone struggles with health literacy at some time, not just people with low literacy. Perhaps an individual doesn’t feel well, is dealing with a bad diagnosis, is on a medication or has a condition that could affect their ability to concentrate. Whatever the situation, those statistics show it is a reality we must face when communicating.

The Recommendations: Three steps to audit your work

Healthcare marketing is important. Not just to meet business objectives, but because it truly impacts people’s lives. It can help save people. As marketers, communicators whose message must be understood and felt by our audience, we have an opportunity. Step outside of what we think we want or need to communicate, and measure our action by its accessibility. That doesn’t mean you’re dumbing down a message or talking down to people, rather, as communicators we need to organize our thoughts and convey information in a way that everyone will understand. The worst disservice you can do is to give people information they aren’t able to understand and act upon. Here are three recommendations, an audit healthcare marketers, health systems and med-tech companies should use when developing content.

  1. Plain and simple. Use shorter, more common words. Ask yourself if it’s “living room language.” Ask yourself if your message means anything to people. Avoid jargon or terminology we might understand as individuals or organizations immersed in our message on a daily basis, but someone else might have a whole different frame of mind or understanding of. When they are available, choose shorter, more common words. If you have to use a complicated word, define it.
  2. Shorter sentences. People tend to write as they speak. That can involve using lots of conjunctions and words that connect the sentences, making them very long. In your healthcare marketing communications, something’s wrong if it takes a long time for the reader to get to the end of the sentence. It’s much easier for people to understand when there’s one idea in a sentence.
  3. Concrete language. There are lots of words defined by an individual’s personal experience or filter. For example, if your doctor tells you to exercise regularly, that could be understood as every day, three times a week or even just once a month. If you really want people to understand a message or follow the directions you give them, you must use concrete words so it’s not vague and up to the reader, viewer or listener to interpret your meaning.

Challenge what you’ve created: “Three questions every patient should know.”

After auditing your work, look at it through the patient’s perspective by asking three simple questions. It’s common sense, but as we know, it can be challenging to simplify the complex ideas of healthcare. Again, whether in the provider’s office or in a mass media message, if you are trying to simplify a concept for an audience regarding their health, they need you to cut right to it.

  1. What is the problem? What is the condition and what caused it? What does the service mean to them? What is the treatment?
  2. What can we do about it? Consider it a “now what” perspective. What action should they take? What do they need to do? It’s not always a marketing call-to-action (visit, click, learn more, call, etc.), sometimes it’s just something they should know and understand. And that’s ok if you can make it meaningful and understandable. If it is a call-to-action, add a detail. Learn more about what? Click to do what? Visit where? Call and do what?
  3. Why is it important? To be motivated to take action, people need to understand why it’s important. We talk about “why” so much in brand development and strategic marketing planning, it’s also important all the way down to the way a message is conveyed. People need to know why something is important in order to take action. That includes what can go wrong if they don’t take the suggestion.

The Benefits: “Mean something to people.”

If they aren’t seeing it in mass media or targeted marketing, people are engaging with health information because they need to. Either they suspect they have a problem or have been recently diagnosed with a problem. It’s extremely important that they read the information, understand it and know what they need to do. People need to know what a message means to them.

The basic benefit is that people will understand what you’re saying and will know what you want them to do. Your message will reach them in the most understandable way possible. That is so important when you are communicating critical health information. It’s also important when you are trying to build your brand among a target audience by conveying competitive differences between your health system or product and that of your competition.

Health systems have a reason to seek that. They want patients to get better, to get rid of the pain or to help people get healthier again. Recognize that the experience of a patient or for the audience is so important. What kind of an experience does a patient have when they are in a facility or receiving a marketing message and they can’t understand it? If an organization really wants to improve the patient experience, it’s to its benefit to improve health literacy so the patients have a much better chance of getting the outcomes that both the healthcare providers and patients want together.

Simplifying complex ideas is a challenge, especially when everything in healthcare is complex. Next time you are considering how to best communicate a message for your audience, stop, audit your approach and remember this important lesson.

It could be a simple step toward truly reaching someone in need.


Colin Deval is the Senior Communications Strategist at at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice.


e-Book: Parents in the Pandemic

This proprietary research includes insights useful to healthcare marketers, equipping them to build empathy and compassion into their communications with parents as they work to rebuild pediatric volumes and bring families back into care settings.
View Now

connect with us

Subscribe to stay in touch and learn about our latest insights into healthcare marketing.