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IBX Insights

Plain Language and Health Literacy: Why We Need a Change

October is Health Literacy Month, and October 13 is International Plain Language Day. So this is a perfect time to talk about a really important topic.

What is Health Literacy?

Health literacy is how well people understand the language used by doctors, pharmacies, hospitals, and health insurance companies. And for much too long, the health care industry has used way too many long sentences and confusing words.

For instance, health insurance plans often use terms like PCP, EOB, precertification, coinsurance, deductible, and formulary. Huh?

Here in the U.S., where on average people read at about a 7th – 8th grade reading level, that kind of language can be overwhelming. And if people can’t understand the health communications they receive, how can they make informed decisions?

So this is really a health equity issue. Right now, people with a higher level of health literacy may get better care than those with a lower level — just because they more easily understand complex communications. And that can add to the enormous and tragic health disparities in our community.

That’s why it’s time for the health care industry to start using plain language.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language isn’t about talking down to people or leaving details out. It’s about putting the reader first, delivering information quickly and without confusion. When we write something, people should understand it the first time they read it, every time.

At Independence Blue Cross (Independence), we’re committed to using plain language to communicate with our members, clients, and community.

  • We train our communications teams to write more clearly.
  • We try to avoid using too many acronyms.
  • We use short, to-the-point sentences.
  • We try to write things at or below an 8th-grade reading level.

We also offer resources to help our members improve their health literacy. These include our explanation of health insurance basics and a helpful list of important terms to know.

How You Can Improve Your Health Literacy

Clearly the health care industry needs to do a better job of using plain language. But there are also things you can do to better understand health care information. And that will make it easier for you to make good decisions about your health.

For example, when you’re at the doctor’s office, feel free to ask questions if you don’t understand what your doctor is telling you. Ask them to explain your health condition, symptoms, and treatments in a way that makes sense to you. Sometimes it’s really helpful to take notes, because it can be hard to remember afterwards. You can also ask them to give you information in a different way that works better for you, like in writing or through a website.

And if Independence sends you a communication that isn’t clear, please let us know! We want to get it right. You can always call one of our Registered Nurse Health Coaches to ask them to explain something. You can reach them 24/7 by calling 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY/TDD: 711) and following the prompt for “Health Coach.”

We want to make sure you know how to use your health plan. That will help you get the care you need at the lowest possible cost.

Thanks, and have a happy International Plain Language Day!

Matthew Jakubowski

Matthew Jakubowski is communications standards lead at Independence Blue Cross. He manages the company’s writing standards and the quality review process for external communications. In 2019, he launched the Clear and Simple initiative to strengthen IBX’s commitment to plain language and health literacy.