It’s Health Literacy Month! Is your message getting through?

As Health Literacy Month draws to a close, here are some reminders about the vital importance of health literacy and plain language in communications with, and materials for, patients and research subjects.

Health literacy is a growing concern for both providers and researchers. Nearly half of American adults read at between a 7th- and 8th-grade reading level, but health information is often delivered at a 10th-grade level or higher1. The numbers aren’t any better when it comes to research; the average informed consent document is written at an 11th-grade reading level or higher2.

Research shows that using plain language and health literacy principles can increase research participation, improve adherence, and overall, can lead to better health outcomes.

While incorporating plain language into your documents can be a time-consuming process, there are a few steps you can take to ensure your materials are more accessible:

  1. Use active voice. It’s typically clearer and shorter than passive voice.
  2. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms.
  3. Prioritize information that the audience needs-to-know over information that is nice-to-know.
  4. Simplify complicated words and jargon (use a thesaurus like this one from the University of Michigan for some inspiration).

You can also send your documents to the Health Literacy and Plain Language Review Service at Becker Medical Library for free review. We can review study recruitment materials, consent forms, data collection insturments, and more! Please contact Mychal Voorhees at for more information.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Adult literacy in America. (NCES Publication No. 1993-275). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  2. Paasche-Orlow, M.K., Taylor, H.A., & Brancati, F.L.  (2003). Readability standards for informed consent forms as compared with actual readability. New England Journal of Medicine,348, 721-726.