Developing written health materials and writing health information for specific audiences requires a unique skill set. Numerous studies focused on written health materials for patients and the public have reported health-related materials far exceed the average skills and reading ability of U.S. adults.
Below are some tips for developing and assessing written health materials.
1. Identify Your Audience
Take a moment and think about who is your intended audience. It is critical to understand your audience, and then use language that they know and feel comfortable with. Identifying whether or not you have more than one audience may indicate the need for additional versions of the same content. Also, take a moment and think why is it important for the learner to read this document. What do you want the learner to know when they are done reading the information?
2. Organize the Content
Deliver your most important message first. You want to ensure you have your reader’s attention so they continue reading the information you are sharing. Include all “need to know” information, using jargon-free words and plain language and eliminate all “nice to know” information.
Structure the content of your document to address questions your audience may have, and then organize them in a logical order. If your document is communicating a process, then it is best to present the steps in a sequential or chronological order.
3. Write in the “Active Voice”
When writing in the active voice, the reader is asked to do something or take an action. This helps with accountability, as the reader becomes the “doer” of the content. “Take your medicine with your lunch” is an example of active voice. Passive voice would be “Medicine should be taken at lunchtime”.
4. Include Useful Headings and Subheadings
Grouping information into sections with clear headings helps the reader easily find and identify the information contained in the document.
5. Include Sufficient White Space
Do not fill the entire page with text and content. Dense sections and a lack of white space are visually unappealing and don’t allow areas where the eyes can rest. White space aids in breaking up the content and enhances reading ease.
6. Use Tools and Graphics for Clarity
Provide examples for your reader to help them understand the points made in the document. Use graphics such as lists, tables, charts or illustrations to help break up a document that contains a large amount of text.
7. Test Your Document
Review materials with an agreed upon consistent process and engage members of the intended audience in the review process. It is ideal to have members of the audience offer guidance in the development and design of the information. Always pilot your draft materials with your intended audience and revise based on their findings and suggestions.
Other helpful tools to assess your written materials include:
AHRQ’s Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool (PEMAT) – a systematic method to evaluate and compare the understandability and actionability of patient education materials. CDC Clear Communication Index – a research-based tool to help you develop and assess public communication materials.
Health Literacy Partners is available for consultations or on-site workshops to help your team improve written materials.