You write in plain language, use video explainers and apply all the web writing best practices. So your content should be clear to just about everyone, right?

No. Not even close. Because you need to consider the relatively low health literacy and health numeracy of the average American. Even the plainest of plain language may not be enough to cover the gap. So how can we reach this population? Our five tips can help.

Health Literacy and Numeracy in 2021

What are health literacy and numeracy?

  • Health literacy is the ability to understand and use basic health information to make care decisions.
  • Health numeracy refers to quantitative skills involved in healthcare decision-making.

Roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population is affected by low health literacy. 1 in 4 people struggles to make sense of healthcare information, including marketing content, patient education materials, care instructions and medical bills. And often, the other 3 out of 4 are struggling as well.

1 in 4 people struggles to make sense of healthcare information, including #marketing content. #healthliteracy Click To Tweet

According to the National Assessment of Health Literacy, nearly 9 out of 10 people are not proficient in using qualitative and quantitative health information. They may have basic health literacy but still have difficulty understanding data and medical terms and then using that information to make care decisions.

How Does Health Literacy and Numeracy Affect Care-Seeking Behavior?

People with lower health literacy and numeracy might put off preventive care because they don’t feel sick. They may feel intimidated and not ask questions, preventing them from building trust with their care team. Even worse, some people quit treatments when they run into obstacles.

Here are some additional examples:

People who lack proficiency in health literacy might not:

  • Know what issues require urgent care, emergency care or can be handled with a phone call or secure message instead of an appointment
  • Use advanced website features, like video content, online appointment scheduling or chatbots
  • Realize how basic health library content applies to their circumstances
  • Understand care instructions
  • Know how to refill their medications and may end up experiencing a medical emergency (for example, if a person with diabetes encounters difficulty getting insulin refills)

People with lower health numeracy might not:

  • Interpret data correctly, such as the risks associated with recommended treatments or the likelihood of being diagnosed with a hereditary condition
  • Understand how their insurance works, how much they have to pay for care or the financial consequences of seeing an out-of-network provider
  • Feel comfortable keeping track of dates, times, doses and other measurements
  • Know what lab results mean (Is a “negative result” bad or good?)
  • Understand food labels well enough to know whether they are consuming enough fiber or too much sodium
Nearly 9 out of 10 people are NOT proficient in using qualitative & quantitative health information. #numeracy #healthliteracy Click To Tweet

Health Literacy and Numeracy Through the Lens of COVID-19

Health literacy and numeracy affect people’s ability to navigate decisions related to COVID-19. They might have difficulty making sense of news, statistics and what it all means for them. And when people are in the weeds, it’s hard to make decisions about vaccinating, masking or other recommendations.

5 Tips for Reaching People With Lower Health Literacy or Numeracy

People who are not proficient struggle with health information comprehension, decision making or care-related tasks. When your messages fail to reach them, it not only hurts your marketing efforts but can negatively impact people’s well-being.

Even when we’ve done our best to simplify messaging and remove jargon, there will still be people who don’t understand our content. What additional steps can we take to reach them?

We’ve got 5 tips:


1. Don’t drop data and run

There’s a growing need to infuse data into our content. Just look at the 2021 CMS Price Transparency Rule, which mandates public reporting of consumer costs for shoppable services. But content peppered with numbers can confuse lower health numeracy users. They may struggle to make sense of this information and any other quantitative content, including ratings, quality metrics and more.

Include resources that help these users understand what the numbers mean. Just as important, they’ll need explanations of how the data is relevant to them. Read our blog 5 Marketing Tips to Demystify Hospital Price Transparency for Consumers

2. Help users find the services they need

Higher health literacy users want multiple options for interacting with your brand online. Find a doctor. Make an appointment. Schedule a virtual visit. Having multiple jumping-off points from a single page isn’t likely to faze them. But this approach can overwhelm lower health literacy users.

You want to please users who appreciate having choices, but you don’t want to lose those who prefer simplicity. You can reach both by including multiple options. Online way-finding features can make sure lower health literacy users don’t get lost.

Check out how Banner Health connects people with services using the Get Care Now feature. It gently and clearly guides the user along the care path they need with a clean interface and minimal text.

3. Don’t assume a video explainer will fix it

Video content and animations can help people understand complex topics. Our brains process visual content faster than words, so videos have great potential for bridging the gap with lower health literacy users … if people can access them.

Video content often requires broadband internet. But 19 million Americans live in areas without broadband. This includes as many as a quarter of the population in rural areas. For them, this content is out of reach. If you include a video, make sure all mission-critical information is also in easy-to-understand narrative content.

4. Create smooth online transitions

As hospitals add more features to their sites, including video visits, online bill pay and scheduling, users are more likely to end up on a third-party vendor’s platform. For people with lower health literacy, this can be unsettling. Vendor sites often have a different look and feel. Some users may bounce, thinking they’ve landed on the wrong page.

Those who stay the course may still have concerns. Will this vendor site be easy to use? What if I get stuck? Is it secure? Help users by letting them know they’ll need to interact with a vendor’s site to complete a transaction. And provide them with information beforehand that allays their concerns.

Check out the detailed video visit FAQs that University of Pittsburgh Medicine provides for their users.

5. Be especially careful when communicating about COVID-19

With the ongoing pandemic, we’re still sharing information with the public about risks, precautions and guidelines. It’s easy to assume audiences are familiar with COVID-19 since it’s been around so long.

But COVID-19 information often includes data, new findings and recommendations that keep changing. These are all difficult concepts for people with lower health literacy to grasp. Help users make informed decisions about their care by continuing to provide content that addresses common questions and concerns.

Read this delta variant tip sheet from UC Davis Health.

Even when we've done our best to simplify messaging & remove jargon, there will still be people who don’t understand our content. What can we do better? #healthliteracy Click To Tweet

Additional Resources for Communicating With Consumers

Read these posts to learn more about communicating with consumers:

content marketing blog


Explore Our Award-Winning Content Marketing Blog

5 Hospitals Crushing It on Social Media

5 Hospitals Crushing It on Social Media

With at least 95 million new posts per day on Instagram alone, there’s a lot of competition on social media for hospitals (and everyone, really). Stopping the scroll has never been harder. Resharing blogs and showing facility upgrades isn’t enough to succeed on social...

6 Best B2B Healthcare Blogs for Marketers

6 Best B2B Healthcare Blogs for Marketers

It’s our job to be obsessed with content. You have to immerse yourself in your industry to truly know your audience … so it makes perfect sense that we have 37 tabs open at all times and too many newsletter subscriptions to count. At least, that’s what we tell...

Contact Ahava for a content workshop

Start Marketing With Purpose

Increase the results of your marketing efforts with a strategic approach to content marketing.

Talk Strategy with Ahava