What is health literacy? It is the ability to understand and communicate information about health. Your ability to clearly communicate that information using plain language helps clients and their families make appropriate decisions about health.
Imagine taking a trip to a foreign country where people speak an unknown language. Translation services aren’t available. No Rosetta Stone software. No interpreter. No translation app on your phone. How much can you understand? You’re frustrated, overwhelmed and frightened. Anyone would feel bewildered by this inability to understand critical information.
For families of patients with communication disorders, our professional language sounds foreign to them. Our world of common professional jargon includes: auditory, aural, cochlear, apraxia, pharyngeal, acoustic, receptive, expressive, hierarchy, audiogram, speech perception, otoclearance, OAE, ABR, air-bone gap, frequency, decibels, dysphagia, articulation, disfluency, air conduction, bone conduction, aphonia, assessment, congenital, nonverbal, multi-disciplinary, IEP and many more.
We discuss these topics throughout our day. Those words roll off our tongues fluently. To people without our background—most of our clients’ families—these are foreign terms. Most families—let alone anyone who speaks English as a second language—struggle to understand our explanations. A family might find it difficult to help their child or loved one if they’re focusing on understanding what these professional terms mean.
Our profession is about clear communication for everyone, so becoming health literate by knowing how to use plain language is crucial. Plain language includes clear, concise and easy-to-read terms and explanations. Avoid anti-intellectual, unsophisticated or dumbed-down vocabulary.
Plain language means clients and their families understand information the first time. When sharing information about communication disorders, assume that everyone’s unfamiliar with our jargon. When writing materials for patients and families, a target a comprehension level of fourth to sixth grade to make the information understandable to most people. When our patients and families have a clear understanding of diagnosis, treatment plan, equipment and home programming, they’re more likely follow through with your recommendations.
This example of plain language explains a complicated audiology test:
Cortical Auditory Evoked Potentials (CAEP): A nerve carries sound signals from the ear to the brain. Problems with this nerve can cause problems with hearing. A CAEP test shows what the hearing nerve does when it receives sound. It can tell us if your child needs hearing aids or a cochlear implant. It can tell us if your child’s hearing aids or cochlear implants are set correctly (fifth-grade reading level explanation of CAEP).
These quick tips help for incorporating plain language:
- Assume information is challenging for everyone to comprehend.
- Explain a maximum of three concepts or details at once. Three pieces of information is the most people retain in one setting.
- Provide paper and pen for families or patients to take notes about the information.
- When developing patient and family education materials, write the material at a fourth- to sixth-grade reading level. By doing so, the information will be accessible for all.
- Take time to make sure that you have explained the information clearly. Verify with families or patients that they can share this information with other family members.
- Have the family or patient demonstrate what you’ve taught.
- Check for questions by stating or asking, “Tell me what questions you have” or “What can I better explain?”
The next time you meet with a family or patient, think about how you can clearly communicate—using plain language—about their assessment, equipment and/or treatment plan. Take complex information and make it accessible to people of all backgrounds, education levels and cultures. Clear communication equals elevated understanding. When we teach patients and families about speech and hearing disorders, we shouldn’t evaluate how much information they know. We should evaluate how well we teach it.
Becky Clem, MA, CCC-SLP, a listening-spoken language specialist (LSLS) with auditory-verbal certification, is the education coordinator for rehab services at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Her experience includes patient and family education, health literacy, working with families of babies and children with hearing loss, and mentoring professionals for LSLS. Becky.firstname.lastname@example.org