I read a post this week from a group that disseminates a range of information about Health Literacy, Communicate Health. On their website they state that they’re “dedicated to designing better health information.” They say they have a “crush” on health literacy.
This week they blogged about “How to Explain the Immune System”. Since I’m always on the prowl for innovative ways to write and illustrate complex health and science, I dove right in.
The blog essentially states that if a reader/patient isn’t in a situation to really need to know the term “immune system” then just don’t use the term.
So, instead of this:
The medicine you get during chemotherapy can weaken your immune system (the system that helps your body fight infections). When your immune system is weak, you’re more likely to get sick — and it can take longer for you to get better.
You could write this:
During chemotherapy, your loved one is more likely to get sick — and it can take longer for them to get better.
The bottom line: Teach the term “immune system” to readers who will be hearing it often and skip it with those who won’t.
Dear Communicate Health Blogger,
Are you really saying you advise that we should decide what readers need and when we can, use only words/language that people already know?
Is it that the big words are hard to say? Take up too much line space? Expendable? TMI?
If this is true, it doesn’t seem like a big leap from deciding to leave out the technical words, especially for poorer readers. They would get the “dumbed down” version of health, science and how their bodies work, while the rest of us would continue to, well…become smarter, know and understand more. Perhaps even be healthier?
As a linguist and reading expert, I really don’t know of any sound human language development, cognition or reading theories that would support your advice. Even at the earliest ages and stages readers/listeners are faced with words they don’t know – they employ the universal strategies of skipping and guessing. We’re pretty hard wired for this kind of thinking. In fact it’s one of the main ways we learn.
And, just checking again, are you really saying that the developer of the health material decides what the audience needs to know? Isn’t that so very 20th century – don’t you think?
If we followed your guidance, I simply can’t think of how we’d ever foster and achieve more equitable access to knowledge and the information commons in our society.