By Natacha Fasel-Murphy
A 2021 interview with the Australian Reading and Writing Hotline describes a report from an Australian nurse, who was concerned that the families she was supporting could not read the immunisation consent forms that she was providing them. As a result, the consent forms were not signed and the children were not immunised (Turnbull, 2021). As a speech pathologist, this story triggered a memory of asking a parent if they had finished the syllable counting homework with their child, to then discover that the parent had not understood the written instructions. This experience forced me to reflect on the accessibility of the written information I was providing caregivers.
As speech pathologists, it is safely assumed that we have a high level of written and verbal communication skills. Most days we carefully tailor our communication styles and approaches to best meet the needs of our young clients and facilitate their engagement. But do we do the same for their caregivers? What are the verbal and written communication skills of their caregivers and how can we cater to them?
When we communicate with the caregivers of our young clients, the verbal and written information that we provide falls into the category of ‘health information’ within the broader ‘health literacy environment’. The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare (ACSQH) describes individual health literacy as the motivation and capacity that a person has to access, understand, appraise and apply available information to make health related decisions (ACSQH, 2015). The broader health literacy environment includes the policies, processes and accessible materials that exist (or don’t exist) in the health system (ACSQH, 2015).
In 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) conducted a health literacy survey of Australian adults. The survey results suggested that only 41% of Australian adults had a level of health literacy that would enable them to understand health promotion and prevention information, disease prevention and management information and allow them to navigate our healthcare system (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2018). Knowing this, as healthcare professionals we have a responsibility to tailor the information we provide to ensure that it is accessible.
Whilst the health literacy of our adult population is a concerning statistic which warrants further attention, the good news is that there are many resources available to assist us in writing accessible and consumer-friendly health information. The NSW Government has published a checklist that healthcare professionals can refer to. This checklist encourages professionals to meet 85% of the criteria that it outlines and includes strategies like only having three to five points in a list, using bold instead of capitals or italics and using free online ‘readability checks’ before publishing written information (NSW Government, 2016). This checklist can be accessed online through the link at the end of this post. The ACSQH also provides detailed fact sheets and guides to assist healthcare providers to tailor written information for their consumers. Some of the strategies described by the ACSQH include using an active voice, limiting each document to only contain three or four key messages and using size 12 font with lots of white space (ACSQH, 2017). The ACSQH also provides specific advice when working with culturally and linguistically diverse populations and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The ACSQH fact sheets can be accessed online through the link at the end of this post.
So what now? – Top three tips to apply today
1 – Copy and paste the last email you sent to a caregiver into a free online readability checker, such as the Automatic Readability Checker at www.readabilityformulas.com, consider what the results are and how you can apply strategies to improve the readability of future emails.
2 – Download the NSW Government checklist for consumer-friendly health information or the ACSQH fact sheet, compare the next next report or handout that you write for a caregiver to the recommendations listed.
3 – Test the written documents that you are publishing, ask caregivers if they would be willing to provide you feedback.
References & further reading:
Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare (2015). What is health literacy? [Infographic]. Accessible at: https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/publications-and-resources/resource-library/what-health-literacy-infographic
Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare (2017). Writing health information for consumers. [Fact Sheet]. Accessible at: Fact sheet 4 – Health literacy – Writing health information for consumers | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2018). Australia’s Health 2018 – Chapter 4.3 Health Literacy. [Report]. Accessible at: Australia’s health 2018, Table of contents – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (aihw.gov.au)
NSW Government (2016). Checklist for designing consumer-friendly health information. Accessible at: https://healthliteracy.nnswlhd.health.nsw.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Northern-NSW-Health-Literacy-Checklist-for-writing-consumer-information.pdf
Turnbull, Tiffanie (2021). Millions of Australian adults have poor literacy. The West Australian Millions of Aust adults have poor literacy | The West Australian