Last updated: 19 September, 2020
If you have a cat or a dog, you know the first challenge in using medication to treat their health conditions is getting them to swallow the darn stuff. The same is true for health information with people, especially ordinary people with no special medical background. In order to be in control of your health, you have to be well informed about it. But people need that information in a form they can swallow.
The ease of taking in information relates to what’s called cognitive load. Before it can be retained in your long-term memory, information has to pass through your sensory memory – which is sort of like having it in your mouth – and then through your working memory – which is sort of like your throat. Your working memory can only handle so much at a time. And if the information you’re getting is already a lot to take in, like a big dose of medication, it needs to require as little extra work as possible.
If you’re writing health information for people with no special healthcare background – in articles, handouts, packaging, ads, or even signs – here are some ways you can reduce the cognitive load of health information and make it easier to swallow.
A sentence that has multiple embedded clauses, such that there is a sentence inside another sentence, as for example this sentence that you’re reading, is a big pill. You can always split a big pill into smaller pills to be swallowed one after another. But ask yourself how much of that pill is just filler in the first place. Would the absorption of the information be facilitated by a sentence structure and choice of vocabulary that enhanced the compactness of the information? Which is to say, would it be easier to take in with a less wordy structure and shorter words? Yup. It also helps to lean towards verbs rather than nouns to convey the action of the sentence (not “the conveyance of the action is aided by inclination towards verbs”).
Watch out that in being compact you’re not too compact. For example, “Complex health care facts readers need suffer when too dense.” Let’s open that up a bit: “Complex facts that readers need about health care can suffer from being too dense.” Don’t leave out all the little connective words that show how it relates. If you make the readers fill in too many gaps and force them to do the work of sorting out the connections, they’ll have less cognitive capacity to understand and absorb the message.
Health problems are problems, and we deal with them like we deal with other problems. If your house is on fire, you don’t want to have to scroll through hundreds of words on the chemistry of combustion before reading how to put it out – and what effects that could have.
When people learn about health things, they learn about the names of those health things, too, so that they know how to talk about them and can understand what’s being said about them. If you’re talking about medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen, you may want to tell the readers that they’re commonly called NSAIDs, and when you do that you’ll need to say what NSAID stands for: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. And then you’ll need to explain what that means – that they reduce swelling (pain, too) but aren’t of the class of drugs called steroids. Always define terms the first time you use them.
Consider what terms you truly need to introduce. Is the reader likely to encounter tyrosine kinase inhibitor again? Is it necessary to ask them to hold hemolysis in their heads, or can you just say breaking down red blood cells? And, by the way, are you using common words in specialized medical ways? Don’t say This treatment is indicated in patients presenting with respiratory depression; say This is approved for treating people whose breathing is too slow and shallow. You’re not here to prove you know insider health information to other insiders. You’re here to help outsiders – normal people – understand it.
Clear and simple doesn’t just mean using plain words. It also means using abbreviations if they’re understood and easier to process than the full form (but always define them!), and it means using numerals, which are easier to spot on the page than spelled-out numbers. If you’re scanning a page to know how much to take, “Take one 20 mg tablet every 6 hours” will jump out sooner than “Take one twenty-milligram tablet every six hours.”
We understand information by relating it to things we know. To change the metaphor for a moment, if a bit of information has no clear peg to hang on, it will either get hung on the wrong peg or just fall off. Use analogies if they’ll be clear and not misleading: “Your lungs aren’t really like big balloons. They’re more like big sponges, but for air instead of water. So they have many little surfaces inside them.”
Many different kinds of people will read the information you’re presenting. Not all of them will be well-educated native speakers of English. And even those who are native speakers may be distressed, distracted, tired, or affected by a medical condition. Try to get it to 8th grade level or lower. This isn’t “dumbing down”; it’s making it usable for everyone. You’re not putting them through med school, you’re getting them through a health concern.
It should go wihtout syaing that it’s hrader to process the menaing of smoehting if you’re hvaing to mnetally corect sloppiness as you read. And its not just spelling ;stray or missing punctuation, also increases the friction and make’s that pill grind its way down your throat.
Tidiness also extends to consistency! If you call the same thing by three different names, you’re increasing the work load on the reader: they have to remember that adult-onset diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and NIDDM (non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus) are not three distinct things. If you want them to be aware of all the names a thing may be called, tell them once, and then stick to one name the rest of the time. Also be consistent in how you handle smaller matters of style: If you say a 50 mg tablet in one place and a 50-mg tablet in another, they might notice the hyphen difference and wonder about it, even if only for a moment. A pill that sticks in your throat even for a moment is a problem.
Conveying medical information to ordinary people is difficult. You have to put yourself into the position of someone very different from you. And you need to imagine how they will react to your text at what could be a challenging moment. However, there are ways to make some parts of the challenge easier. You can use software to find and correct many of these issues. Use the reading level checker in Microsoft Word (it’s part of the spelling and grammar check options) to ensure you’re at the right level. And use PerfectIt to help make sure you’ve defined abbreviations, written out numbers where necessary, and are consistent in all of the small mechanical details. There’s a free trial available for Mac or PC, so download it now.