Content marketing is ideal for healthcare. Not only is it an excellent marketing option, but it also provides opportunities for patient education and patient engagement. But healthcare content marketing can present a challenge: readability. In fact, a recent study of patient education materials on medical websites found that the average reading level for these materials was 11th grade +.
The recommended reading level for patient information is 7th grade.
How can you get important ideas and information across and still keep it accurate?
Medical professionals often talk about the need to “dumb down” their content. Obviously, this is a frustrating idea. But we would argue with the use of that term. People aren’t dumb just because they don’t know the same things that you do. You can increase readability without talking down to your readers.
- Make sure you have a single main point. If you want to explain the importance of sunscreen, don’t bring in vitamin D deficiency. It’s important, but it’s not relevant. Stick with a single point for each post or page on your website.
- Use common terms whenever you can. Read more about medical terminology below, but make it a general rule to use ordinary words when it will make your meaning clear. There’s a difference between “stomach” and “abdomen,” but we all know that speakers of American English commonly use “stomach” for both. The freedom with which people use inaccurate terms for body parts may be a pet peeve for some healthcare professionals, but don’t let that stand in the way of communication.
- Use simpler sentences. When you need to communicate complex ideas or to use specialized vocabulary, keep your sentences simple. It takes more attention to keep track of a long sentence. You also have to read a long sentence faster just to keep the whole thing in your short term memory long enough to understand it. So it makes sense to balance complicated ideas or vocabulary with simple sentences.
These steps won’t make your web page sound “dumb” or condescending. It’ll just be easier to read.
How much is readability influenced by medical terminology? One interesting study examined patient education web content about gastroenterology that was judged hard to read by standard readability tools. The researchers found that replacing only the specific medical terminology in the articles fixed the problem. Another recent study found that patients’ perceptions of the readability of their electronic health records didn’t correlate with the judgements of readability tools.
Just as children may have trouble with long words in general, but not with “elephant” or “dinosaur,” patients may be fine with the specific terms they’ve learned from their doctors or their internet research even if they don’t have lots of similar words in their vocabulary.
We’d still say that you should use a common word if there is one. The first time you use a medical term, explain it clearly with ordinary words. Then use the medical term when it matters.
Design for readability
Tools that test readability examine words and sentences and gauge how easy they are for readers to understand. Legibility, how easy it is for people to read the words with their eyes, is something else. In web design, we often use the two words interchangeably. Avoid the design features that are known to make things harder to read:
- Light text on a dark background is harder to read.
- Words and sentences in ALL CAPS are harder to read.
- Text with lots of decoration is harder to read. Resist the temptation to make your page snazzier with multiple colors and fancy fonts.
- Small fonts (less than 12 points) are harder to read. Bear in mind that many patients do not know how to make the text on their computers look larger.
- Dense paragraphs are harder to read. For some people, they may look daunting enough to discourage even trying to read.
- Paragraphs and pictures strewn around the page are confusing. Text should be broken up visually in a logical way. Images should help convey meaning.
Whether your primary focus is healthcare content marketing or patient education — or a judicious combination of the two — readable healthcare content should be a priority at your website.