Drop the jargon: Using plain language for better health outcomes

What does it mean to have a chronic[1] condition? What do the acronyms BAU[2], CCF[3] or ARP[4] stand for? Would a new migrant understand the term bulk-billed[5]? Among the many words submitted to the jargon blacklist for Drop the Jargon Day, these terms are often confusing and meaningless to consumers, making it difficult for them to make informed decisions about their own healthcare.

With six out of 10 adults in Australia having a low level of health literacy, the complexity of the healthcare system means that a significant gap exists between the way healthcare issues are communicated and the ability of most people to understand them. Limited health literacy can affect anyone – not just those with limited reading skills or those for whom English is a second language – and affects the safety and quality of the healthcare they receive.

When people struggle to understand some of the information they are provided about their healthcare, they may be unable to weigh up the risks and benefits of different options and make clear decisions about the care they receive. They may miss necessary tests and immunisations, make mistakes with their medications, and are at a higher risk of serious illness and hospitalisation.

Health Literacy Month in October is a time for organisations and individuals to promote the importance of understandable health information. This annual, worldwide, awareness-raising event has been going strong ever since Helen Osborne founded it in 1999 and is about taking action and finding ways to improve health communication.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is about the way consumers find, understand, use, and act on information about health and healthcare. According to the Australian Commission of Safety and Quality in Healthcare (ACSQH), health literacy can be separated into two parts: Individual health literacy and the health literacy environment, both of which shape the way consumers understand health information and services.

Individual health literacy is characterised by a person’s skills, motivation and knowledge, and can fluctuate with circumstances. The health literacy environment includes the way health services are set up in organisations, policies and processes, the way health information is delivered and how health professionals interact with consumers.

Improving health literacy

While it is important for individuals to improve their own health literacy, organisations also need to step up to improve their health literacy environment to achieve safer, higher quality healthcare for consumers.

Consumers can become active partners in their own healthcare, by knowing the right questions to ask their healthcare providers, asking for more information when they don’t understand something, and actively seeking more information about their healthcare. The following resources can help when preparing for an appointment with a GP or specialist:

Question Builder

5 Questions to ask your doctor

Top tips for safe healthcare

Healthcare organisations and providers can improve their health literacy environments by using a range of communication strategies and working with consumers to make sure that the information and services they provide are easy to understand and use.

Drop the jargon

Using jargon, technical terms or acronyms can make it even harder for people with low health literacy to understand and use health-related information. Drop the Jargon Day on 23 October encourages professionals in Australian health, community services and local government to use plain language, avoid acronyms, use short sentences and check for understanding when communicating with consumers. Health professionals and organisations can pledge to drop the jargon, to make it easier for people with low health literacy to get better information and outcomes from services they use.

Further information and resources about health literacy, including other fact sheets in this series, are available on the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care website.

 

 

 

[1] Persisting for a long time or constantly recurring.

[2] Business as usual

[3] Congestive Cardiac Failure

[4] Acute Resuscitation Plan

[5] Patient does not have to pay fees for the healthcare service as the provider bills Medicare directly

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About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia