Reading Levels on Your Medical Blog

We blog for health and wellness companies and medical professionals. In most cases, we do all the blogging, but we enjoy collaborating with clients. One of the issues that comes up in these collaborations is reading level. Communicating specialized information in a way that is both accurate and accessible to the average reader can be especially tricky with medical blogs.

Most successful non-writers don’t have time to write their own blogs regularly, even if they enjoy writing. The benefits of blogging are enormous, and if you wait to get those benefits till you have time to do it yourself, you probably won’t get them.

It makes sense for doctors and health and wellness professionals to outsource blogging. If you have a variety of writers working on your medical blog, work together to set the reading level.

What’s too hard to read?

We’re not really becoming less literate as a society, but it’s wise to make your blog posts accessible to all the people who want and need your goods and services. All adults need access to health information regardless of education or reading ability.

The content at your health blog should be scannable. Stay on track and arrange your content in a way that makes sense. Long paragraphs are easy to get lost in, and you may scare off some readers with a hefty block of dense text. Use subheadings to categorize information and to make it easy for returning readers to pick up where they left off.

Also, since people find it slightly more difficult to read on screens, having a slightly easier reading level than your readers need is smart. Focus on presenting a clear, understandable message instead of flexing your vocabulary or flaunting your language skills.

The American Medical Association recommends that patient education materials be written below a 7th grade reading level. Click To Tweet

Reading level analysis tools

But how do you know the reading level at your medical blog? In a recent meeting with the doctors from a clinic we work with, one said, “I don’t really know what’s incomprehensible with topics I talk about all the time.”

That’s true.

What’s more, some people use “egregious” in normal conversation and some don’t. Just saying, “Use ordinary words” doesn’t really help.

We use the Yoast SEO Plugin. This WordPress plugin has a readability gauge. The screenshot below shows how it designates factors by red, orange, or green dots depending on the difficulty of your post.

Yoast uses the Flesch Reading Ease scale, which scores from 0 to 120:

Score Notes
90.0–100.0 easily understood by an average 11-year-old student
60.0–70.0 easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students
0.0–30.0 best understood by university graduates

Flesch in this case is Rudolf Flesch, a reading expert whose writings used to irritate me quite a bit when I was working on my master’s thesis on literacy acquisition, but the test is the one used by the Navy, among other groups, and the Yoast tool works well.

I like using an automatic test because it sidesteps the issue mentioned above — that it’s harder to recognize a tough reading level when you’re familiar with the topic.

It’s also sometimes easier for a writer to hear a machine-made score than human feelings on the subject; amateur writers in particular are notoriously touchy about their words.

Keeping the right reading level at your medical blog

We usually aim for a score of 50 or higher for blogs intended to be read by the general public. This audience includes older and younger readers, people with varying levels of background information, and perhaps also people whose second language is English.

For patient education materials, we want a score closer to 90. We’re less cautious about blogs intended to be read by specialists in a field. However, we always want to err on the side of readability. If for some reason you really want to appeal only to the highly educated, fine; if you’d be just as happy to sell your shampoo to people without advanced degrees, keep the numbers high.

So how can you fine-tune your blog to reach the appropriate level of readability?

Check a post written naturally by the blogger you plan to use.

People writing in their normal voices tend to write at about the same readability level most of the time. If your example comes in at a 75, don’t worry about it any more. If it’s more like a 25, then you need to make changes.

Reduce jargon when possible.

Sometimes you don’t really have a choice; firmware is firmware and a jurisdiction is a jurisdiction. However, there are often more commonly-used terms that will do as well as the jargon.

Use “heart attack” and “high blood pressure” instead of “myocardial infarction” and “hypertension”.

If you’re using jargon intentionally to give an “insider” feel, that’s one thing. If it’s just habit, rephrase.

Divide long sentences.

Yoast suggests shortening sentences. We’d say do so by dividing multi-clause sentences into multiple, single-clause sentences. A clause, speaking of jargon, is a part of a sentence that contains a subject and a verb so it can be a sentence on its own.

Swap for more common words.

If it’s still too hard to read for the goal you’ve set for your blog, it’s time to start swapping out vocabulary. English has more words than any other language, as it happens, so you will always have lots of choices when it comes to words.

“Mature Homo sapiens require perpetual ingestion of beneficial nutrients to sustain vitality.”

 That doozy should be replaced with…

“Adults need nutritious food every day for good health.”

This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the importance of word choice; use words that make sense to your audience.

We do this last because word choice has more effect on style than the previous steps. Don’t feel that you have to talk down to your audience or write less stylishly to achieve an easier reading level. This post has a reading level in the 60s, and it’s a far cry from Easy Readers.

Consult a healthcare copywriter

Writing content for a medical blog or your health and wellness website isn’t the same as writing for other fields. Health information is often difficult to understand, but everyone — regardless of age, gender, education, profession, interests, etc. — must be able to understand it.

There’s also a lot of misinformation out there; trusting inaccurate health information can have negative health outcomes.

Medical professionals often specialize, and so do copywriters. It can take years for a good writer to perfect writing medical content — Haden Interactive can start providing regular, quality medical content today.

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