Health numeracy: Tips for communicating numbers with patients and research participants

We communicate numbers daily in healthcare and clinical research. Patients and research participants are asked to decipher their risk reduction, manage their medication dosing, understand their lab results and much more. Yet, nine out of ten U.S. adults do not have the appropriate numeracy skills for these situations.1  

So how can we help our audience better navigate numbers? Here are a few tips:  

  1. Do the math for your audience. Never make the reader calculate a fraction, percentage or proportion. For example, say “1 in 5 adults” instead of “20% of adults.”  
  1. Use visuals to aid understanding. Simple infographics and images can be helpful when explaining numbers. In the above example, you could use an icon array to show your audience what 20% looks like. The National Cancer Institute’s Making Data Talk workbook also offers excellent suggestions for using visuals to convey numbers and data.  
  1. Avoid jargon and unfamiliar concepts. Science and medicine often use terms that are complicated or unfamiliar to the general public. Explain terms like relative risk, correlation, and longitudinal when you write content for patients and research participants. If you can’t avoid specific concepts, best practice is to explain them to your audience in simple language. Check out the Program for Readability in Science & Medicine (PRISM) Toolkit for some ideas on how to simplify common words in STEM.   
  1. Less is more. Numbers can easily overwhelm your documents and messaging. When editing, think about what information the reader absolutely needs to know to make a decision or stay informed. Take out the rest.  
  1. Remember to use plain language. Use plain language principles when communicating about numbers, too. Review some of our plain language suggestions or check out  

You can also reach out to the Plain Language Review Service at Becker Library for help with reviewing and editing your documents for readability and plain language. 


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention