From the Executive Director: The importance of plain language in health

With Australia entering a new phase of the COVID pandemic, one where mandatory isolation has come to an end, many of us have reflected on what COVID has taught us.

The importance of health literacy is one such lesson.

Throughout the pandemic, whole populations were asked to understand and rapidly digest complex health concepts relating to infection, vaccination uptake and the use of the health care system to produce a coordinated response to limit the spread of disease.

Health literacy is important for everyone because, at some point in our lives, we all need to be able to find, understand, and use health information and services.

Statistics have shown people with low health literacy are more likely to have worse health outcomes overall and adverse health behaviours, while higher levels of health literacy are associated with increased patient involvement in shared decision making, which is important in patient-centred care.

Monash Partners has long understood the role plain language plays in the health sector.

Our community resides in the south and east of Melbourne and surrounding regions with a diverse and rapidly growing population. Our ethnic and cultural diversity includes 49% of people who were born overseas and 57% of people with both parents born overseas (compared to 36% and 38% nationally). Over 100 languages are spoken, 58% of people speak only English at home (68% nationally) and we have more children, less professionals and lower income. We host the highest density of refugees nationally with less than 3% of our population being indigenous.

Therefore, the work we do needs to be accessible.

The idea of health literacy is dynamic and evolving. In early 2023, an ISO Plain Language Standard is set to be published. This will provide all sectors, in nearly all languages, with a set of guidelines and strategies to make information more accessible and effective. It will help improve written communication for everyone. New Zealand is also considering implementing a Plain Language Bill to promote the use of plain English in official documents and websites.

For more on this topic, Director of Plain Language, Health Literacy and Engagement Services of Enliven Victoria, Cinzia Theobald and Dr Grant Russell of Monash University explain the importance of plain language in their article titled “Health language is plain language”.