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October 9, 2012 / Christian M.

Writing Easy-to-Read Health Materials

(Forgive me; this post is kind of long)


Yesterday I completed my second consumer health e-course with NN/LM. I now have seven credits towards the Consumer Health Information Specialization!

This course was called “Promoting Health Literacy Through Easy-to-Read Materials”.  It was especially interesting to me because in my Health Sciences Literature class last year, I wrote a paper on the information needs and user behavior of low-literacy patients. Some of the information in the e-course was review for me, such as statistics on literacy levels in the U.S., and behavior of those with low-literacy skills. However, I learned a lot about how to evaluate the readability of materials, guidelines for writing/revising health materials, and tips for communicating when providing health information or instructions.

So you might be wondering…

What is health literacy?

Health literacy goes beyond a person’s education level or general reading ability. It involves the ability to obtain, understand and use health information to make independent decisions about health and medical care. Some of the tasks may include filling out complex forms, interpreting test results, sharing health history, locating providers and services, following medication instructions, understanding probability and risk, and evaluating the credibility of information.

Reading skills do matter though.

Did you know

  • 43% of Americans have basic or below basic prose literacy skills
  • A person’s reading ability usually drops 3 – 5 grades below their last level of school completed
  • When you are sick or stressed, your reading and comprehension skills can become impaired

Easy-to-read materials are important because so much of health information is shared in a written format. If the materials you need are written above your reading level, then this can negatively affect your ability to make good medical decisions, and properly take care of your health.

Writing Easy-to-Read Materials

Writing medical information that is easy to read is not as easy as it may seem! In general these types of materials should be written at the 5th to 8th grade level. They should emphasize the important information, use simple language, organize information into understandable chunks, and respect cultural differences.

For the final exercise of the e-course, we had to re-write this paragraph:

“The gastrointestinal (GI) system fuels the body, through the processes of ingestion, digestion, absorption, and removes body wastes, through the process of elimination. Problems in the gastrointestinal tract can have far-reaching metabolic implications for your children. For example, dental caries or periodontal disease may affect a nutritionally deficient child’s ability to eat, exacerbating his nutritional problems and prolonging his recovery. Vomiting and diarrhea, if untreated, may cause acid-base imbalance. Bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract may result in severe anemia.”

I don’t know the original purpose of this passage. My approach was to provide parents with an explanation of what the GI tract does, and what type of digestive problems need a doctor’s attention. I also added an illustration. Click on the image to see my re-write.

The instructor said I did a great job. I really enjoyed this course and the exercises. Hopefully, someday in the future I can become involved in writing patient education materials.

Additional Resources


What are your experiences with using health information?

Do you consider yourself to be health literate?



Leave a Comment
  1. lisachow / Oct 11 2012 10:03 am

    Sounds like a great course. I like your bulleted point list re-write — it’s a good way to simplify things. You’re almost there re: CHIS; I got mines in 2010. I worked with a health literacy advisor for a few months and really enjoyed it. This might be of interest: — it was a regional unconference about health literacy & community health.

    • LibGirl09 / Oct 11 2012 10:49 am

      Thanks for the link! Are there any plans for another unconference like this in the future?

      • lisachow / Oct 11 2012 11:33 am

        Many participants asked about having another unconference like HealthCampNYC. At this point, there are no plans. HealthCampNYC was put together by a small team with support from various local organizations & agencies. We hope that people find the wiki to be useful and that it serves not just as a resource for health literacy and community health, but also as a resource to organize their own unconferences. A challenge with event planning, especially with unconferences, is finding a free space/location (so that the event is free to attendees/participants) and has at least one large room and multiple break-out rooms; and of course, having a great team to put it together. (This was rather a long response to your question.)

      • LibGirl09 / Oct 11 2012 11:51 am

        Thanks for the “long” response. This is very helpful. I’ve never attended an unconference before.

      • lisachow / Oct 11 2012 12:01 pm

        I’ve had the opportunity to attend & organize unconferences, and some of them have been the best events I’ve attended, while some fell short, but that goes with anything — unconferences, conferences, etc.

        You might find this LibGuide on unconferences to be of interest –

        Associations like ALA and SLA (Special Libraries) are increasingly incorporating unconference days or sessions into their annual conferences, so keep an eye out for those if you are attending an association conference.

        This also might be of interest – there’s a science & technology library unconference next month in Brooklyn, NY –

      • LibGirl09 / Oct 11 2012 1:35 pm

        Thanks! 🙂

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