Keep it simple when communicating about COVID-19

In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the general public has been asked to learn many public health terms. “Novel virus,” “social distancing” and “contact tracing” are now part of our everyday language. Meanwhile, we know that the average adult struggles to understand health information. But it is even more complex when communicating about a novel virus and a pandemic. Plain language is one tool we can use to ensure health materials are accessible to patients and research participants in clinics.

Here are a few plain language principles to keep in mind when creating materials related to COVID-19.

  • Keep it short. While it might feel necessary to communicate as much information as possible with your audience, it can often lead to information overload. Think about what is the most important information your audience needs to know, and lead with that information.
  • Use actionable and explicit messaging. When it comes to health messaging, it is important to give your audience an explicit action item. Be specific about what you want them to do. For example, “stand 6 feet away from other people” is clearer than “keep your distance from others.”
  • Simplify numbers. There have been a lot of numbers in the news related to COVID-19. Mortality rates, infection rates, overall risk, and more. If you use numbers in your materials, keep in mind that many adults struggle to interpret them. One way to simplify numbers is to use frequencies instead of percentages. For example, say, “1 in 5 adults” instead of “20% of adults”. You can also use infographics and icon arrays to communicate numbers.
  • Use existing resources. There isn’t always a need to create new materials and resources. The Administration for Community Living pulled together a COVID-19 glossary for the general public that can help explain common terms for patients. The CDC has created patient handouts on a variety of issues related to COVID-19 that are free to use. You can also check out the Becker Library’s COVID-19 Resource Guide for additional consumer health resources.
  • Consider the reading level. Reading level is just one way to gauge how your materials might be understood. Try to keep your writing between a sixth and eighth-grade reading level when possible.

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