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Library & Knowledge Services: Plain Language

Plain language health information empowers patients, families and the public to participate in their own care.

What is plain language?

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”

- About [plain language]. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://centerforplainlanguage.org/about/

 

Why plain language?

“When someone is ill, anxious or in pain, being able to access and understand health information may be difficult, even if the person's literacy skills are generally high.

Plain language offers the most benefit to the 49% of Canadian adults with low literacy skills. If your audience is "the public," plain language writing will help you get your message to this segment of the population.”

- Canadian Public Health Association. (n.d.) Plain language service.

When can I use plain language?

Plain language is useful for all types of documents, including web content, forms, pamphlets, labels, signs,  videos, mobile apps, and more.

Plain language @ PHSA

 

Get started: 5 steps to plain language

Plan your message to your audience.
Structure your document to help your audience find important information.
Write clearly.
Design your document to be accessible.
Test your document. Does it work for your audience?

Adapted from: Five steps to plain language. (n.d.) Center for Plain Language.

A closer look: 5 steps to plain language

Plan your message to your audience.  
Your message depends on who your audience is, and what your audience needs to know or do

  • Who is your audience?

If you want your audience to understand your document, understand your audience.

Consider:

  • Personal traits, like age, gender, physical and mental abilities and disabilities, emotional state
  • Cultural traits: language, family structure, biases, sensitivities, first language
  • Knowledge, skills, and abilities: education, literacy, numeracy, knowledge of this topic, previous misinformation.

These traits can affect the way your audience experiences your document.

Diverse groups may use your documents. Consider each group. Plan your document for the audience that will need the most help.

- Source: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC: Lulu.com.

An empathy map can help you explore who your audience is. Start with the Updated Empathy Map Canvas from Dave Grey (2017).

  • What must your audience know or do?

What is your document’s:

  • Single most important thing (SMIT) for your reader to know?
  • Bottom line actionable message (BLAM) that your reader needs so that they can act? 

- Source: Hospital for Sick Children Learning Institute’s Plain Language Checklist  (2017).

Your audience should be able to find your SMIT or your BLAM after skimming your document once.

Structure your document to help your audience find important information.

Now that you know who your audience is, and what your audience needs to know or do, choose a structure for your document. To do this: 

First, break your information into chunks.

Example: You are preparing to send a child home with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC). You are writing a document for their parents. This document will tell caregivers how to take care of a child's PICC.

Your document might include information about:

  • Parts of the PICC
  • What to watch out for (problems)
  • Information about their child's PICC (length, size)
  • Who to call with questions or problems
  • How to keep the PICC safe

 

Then, put the chunks into an order that makes sense to your reader.

For our PICC example, you might choose the following order. [Explanations in square brackets.]

1.     Who to call with questions or problems.

[Why? The caregiver will need this information quickly, in high-stress situations]

2.     Information about the child’s PICC (length, size):

[Why? The caregiver will need this information if they call with a question or a problem.]

3.     Parts of the catheter.

[Why? Caregivers must know the parts to understand the next section.]

4.     What to watch out for (problems).

[Why? Caregivers need to know when to call with questions or problems.]

5.     How to keep the PICC safe.

[Why? These are everyday or regular tasks. The caregiver will revisit the document until they learn these processes.]

Lastly, give each chunk a heading.

You can use a question (What must I watch out for?), description (Problems to watch out for), or simple phrase (Watch out for these problems).

Use 1 or 2 levels of headings.

For our PICC example, you could explain what to watch out for like this:

What should I watch out for? [level 1 heading]

  • Dressing lifting off [level 2 heading]
  • What to do: Put a dressing on top of the dressing that is lifting off.
  • To avoid it: Keep the dressing clean and dry. A little bleeding at the exit site is normal for the first few days.

 - Source: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC: Lulu.com.

 

Write clearly. 

Include only what your reader needs to know. Try these tips:

Use an active voice when you can. Use subjects with verbs.

Passive: Your child will be brought into the operating room.
Active, with subject: A member of your child’s healthcare team will bring them into the operating room.

Use positive phrases when possible.

Negative: Do not forget to take both pills.
Positive: Remember to take both pills.

Address your reader as ‘you.’

Does not address the reader: Social workers will tell patients and families about community groups.
Addresses the reader: Social workers will tell you about community groups for patients and families.

When writing Q & A, use ‘I.’

'I' question: What do I do if the bandage peels off?
    Call your nurse.

Use ‘they,’ ‘their’ or ‘them’ when you write about a single person.

Uses 'his or her': Your support person must wear his or her hospital bracelet.
Uses 'their': Your support person must wear their hospital bracelet.

Use ‘must’ when an action is necessary.

Uses 'should': You should wear gloves.
Uses 'must': You must wear gloves.  (Or, write in the imperative: ‘Wear gloves.’)

Keep instructions simple.

Unclear: Scrub the cap for 15-30 seconds.
Simple: Scrub the cap for 30 seconds.

If your reader needs to know a medical term or acronym, define it.

Important definition: The A1C blood test checks glucose (blood sugar) levels for the past 3 months.

If your reader does not need to know a medical term or acronym, use everyday words instead.

Unnecessary medical term: Your child may have difficulty with gait (walking). 
No medical term: Your child may have difficulty walking

- Sources: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC: Lulu.com.; Checklist for plain language. (n.d.) Plainlanguage.gov.

 Use these resources to review your documents:

Design your document to be accessible.

Make your document easier to read, understand, and use with these tips:

Use:

  • Black text on a white background.
  • Images: choose clear photos or black and white illustrations. Images must work with your text to help the reader understand your message. Remember: icons or symbols must be universal.
  • White space: Leave space at the margins, between lines and words, and around images. White space helps readers scan and understand your document.
  • Accessible fonts: Choose sans serif fonts when writing for web. Use 1 or 2 fonts in your document.

Avoid:

  • ALL CAPS
  • underlined text
  • Italics

- Sources: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC: Lulu.com; Mindlin, M. (2015, July 8). Serif or sans? [Blog entry.] Center for Plain Language.

Does your document work for your audience?

Test it with:

Or, ask patients and families about the document with:

  • Interviews,
  • Surveys, or
  • Focus groups

- Source: Cheryl Stephens (2010). Plain language in plain English. Vancouver, BC: Lulu.com.

Did you know?

The Patient Experience Department at C+W supports staff in getting patient and family feedback. Contact them by email.

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Health Literacy Information Specialist

Contact me

Pamela Harrison, MLIS
Health Literacy Information Specialist

Office: K2-126, Ambulatory Care Building
Phone: 604-875-2345 x 5391
Cell:  604-230-7559
Email:pamela.harrison@cw.bc.ca

What I do

I advocate for clear, high-quality health information that empowers people to participate in their care. I support C+W staff in creating plain language educational documents for patients, families and the public by: