Getting the message on health literacy

My aim as a health writer and editor is to provide information that helps people make good choices about their health and healthcare. My team at BMJ Group write and edit patient leaflets, news stories and decision aids, all with the aim of helping people understand their health and their choices better.

We spend a lot of time scrutinising data to make sure what we tell people is accurate. This is to ensure we’re not misled by a press release that talks about ‘trends’ when the study being promoted did not show a statistically-significant result, or to work out base-line risk in a study that is determined only to give relative risk. We want to get it right.

The rest of our time is spent trying to get that across in an understandable and useful way. Often, the two aims are hard to reconcile. ‘Ah, but you can’t just say that, because the study populations were different,’ is a phrase I hear a lot, usually when I’ve just brilliantly summed up the effects of one treatment versus another. It’s a difficult job, but that’s why I like it.

So it troubles me to learn that much of the work I and others like me do is not helping as many people as it should. Not because it’s inaccurate, but because people can’t understand it. A study reported before Christmas from Keele University found that around half of people (43 in 100 to 61 in 100) had literacy or numeracy skills below the level required to understand most of the patient information materials published today.

The topic was picked up by Radio 4’s Inside Health this week, when King’s Fund fellow Angela Coulter gave a typically incisive interview about sacrificing simplicity on the altar of strict accuracy. No-one is suggesting we should abandon the care we take to ensure materials are accurate. But what’s the point of producing them at all, if half the people who need them can’t use them? Food for thought which I’ll be taking back to the office on Monday.

Health literacy looks like being an important buzz-phrase this year. The Patient Information Forum is quizzing its members about how they ensure materials are easy to understand. The Information Standard has criteria asking members to demonstrate they have taken ease of use into account. I recently organised a training course at work for patient writers and editors, given by the Plain English Campaign, which focused on the use of plain English in the production of medical information. The bar for producing good quality health information just got higher.

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