Health Literacy Corner December 2022

In Praise of Plain Language—As a Gift and an Act of Care
“Nothing is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood.”
— Freeman Teague Jr.

In this post, I want to start with gratitude—gratitude, and even praise for, the gift of plain
language. Simply defined, plain language is a language that’s easy to understand the first time
around—whether in writing or conversation. It’s a cornerstone of clear communication and
central to the work of health literacy and patient engagement. It says no to jargon and too-big
words and says yes to clarity instead. It’s one of the most powerful patient education tools we
have. (And I must ask outright for you to please never ever think of it as an act of “dumbing
down,” and to push back if you ever hear someone speak of it in that way.)

It’s an act of care.
Plain language is conversational and direct. It’s saying “Your tests show you may have heart
failure” instead of “The results of your lab work reveal that you likely have cardiomyopathy.” It’s
using terms like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cancer instead of hyperlipidemia,
hypertension, and malignancy. It’s describing blood vessels as tubes that carry blood through
the body and uses analogies patients can relate to. It’s using simple words, definitions, and
even images to help explain the complex terms that can’t be avoided.

In short, it’s talking with your patients casually and respectfully, and in a way that doesn’t

Plain language helps level the playing field and disrupt the hierarchies between patients and
their providers. We all know that being in the hospital or going to the clinic for a medical
appointment can be intimidating for many people. Talking with your patients in ways that you
would talk to someone in your non-medical life can help put them at ease. It allows language to
become a conduit for shared conversation and decision-making instead of a barrier.

It helps lighten the patient’s load.
Unfortunately, many of us in the health literacy field are sometimes met with the objection that
using plain language, which includes things like short sentences, first and second voice (I, we,
and you), the use of contractions, and editing material to a fifth-grade reading level, means
we’re “dumbing things down.” Some even suggest that patients won’t take providers or
education materials seriously if they’re “too casual.” I’d like to push back on this because these
ideas are simply not true. Holding on to them does a disservice to patients. At best, it puts the
burden of understanding on them. At worst, it may leave them floundering, confused, and
without the confidence and skills, they need to become partners in their care.

When you work with your patients, by the time they leave an appointment or go home from the
hospital, you want them to know what they need to do, why they need to do it, and how. The plain
language will keep you (and them) on track. Too-complicated language can muddy the waters.
Why take that risk? Why ask your patient to do even more work on top of new care
requirements they may already have?

It’s a matter of translation.
Plain language is an act of careful translation. It turns complex ideas into simple ones.
Language becomes an arrow pointing directly to the ideas and messages you need to share
instead of the weedy terrain that’s hard for patients to navigate. It opens up conversation and
dialogue and fosters listening. It can help put patients at ease. When you use plain language,
words become stepping stones to personalized care.

And, yes, it is a gift.
In closing, I invite you to join me in seeing plain language as a gift. Let’s sing it’s praises—not
for what it avoids—but for what it is and does. It’s a powerful tool in its own right. It’s not lesser
or lacking or a substitute for something better. Nothing is lost when you use plain language with
your patients. On the contrary, there is so much to be gained.

Lori Anne Parker-Danley, Ph.D.
Director, Patient Education

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