By Tiffany Derrick, Manager of Digital Internal Programs at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
You are sitting in a physician’s office awaiting the results of a series of important tests. The doctor comes in and gives you news no one wants to hear. Their voice becomes distant and you catch snippets of sentences, but nothing concrete. You’re still processing and missed the rest of the conversation. You ask no questions. The next day, you look up your diagnosis online and are overwhelmed by thousands of websites each using words bigger than the last. You turn off your computer even more confused and discouraged than when you began.
Millions of people search for health information online every day, but many have difficulty distinguishing reliable sources or understanding complicated words or medical jargon. Many clinicians are sticklers for using technical terms when discussing diagnoses and treatment options. Often health-information seekers are already distressed when looking for these answers. Encountering words that are often too complex for many patients and their families to understand creates an unnecessary burden during a stressful time. They are not being presented with content that best serves them because many communicators do not write with these obstacles in mind.
One way to overcome these barriers is for communicators to write using plain language. Plain language, also known as simple language, is a process of developing content using words and phrases a specific audience is intended to understand. Communicators should create content centered around these needs. Users gain a better understanding of content when technical and medical jargon is avoided, and clear or simple words are used instead. Communicators can increase their content’s readability and rank in search engines by using recognizable language, making content easier to find.
With more people researching medical terminology than ever, reputable websites need higher visibility on search engines than less trustworthy ones. The best way to do this is to have a strong search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. Conducting keyword research can reveal important phrases or questions commonly used and alert communicators to content needs. Increase search visibility by using headers that reflect common questions. Communicators whose content is medically accurate and informative should work to increase their search engine rankings to get correct information in front of their users.
The importance of using deliberately chosen keywords in content cannot be overstated. Strategic keywords in headers can increase the readability of content and should signal to users what they will find in the section below. Clear headers also help Google understand the content, prompting the algorithm to display content that best suits a user’s query. The words in your copy should reflect what people use in search engines. However, once content is optimized to receive higher search engine results, your audience needs to understand what they find. The average adult in the U.S. reads at a seventh-grade level. Communicators should not view using plain language as “dumbing down” content, but a chance to improve accessibility and readability for a wider audience. Some effective plain language tactics include:
- identifying and writing to the audience using familiar words
- addressing important questions
- using short sentences and paragraphs to avoid overwhelming readers with dense blocks of text
- aiming for an appropriate reading level
- and incorporating common web-formatting rules such as headers, bullet points and strategic use of white space.
Ultimately, plain language can help communicators in any field to create stronger, more accessible content. Even if someone is an expert in something they are searching for, they are not likely to complain that something is too easy to understand.