Our health systems and treatment options have, over the years, exponentially increased the levels of complexity in navigating health decisions. Patients and caregivers increasingly must navigate those complexities with more of the responsibility on themselves. That creates a situation where health literacy is more important than ever—yet it continues to be one of the largest obstacles in managing our health systems. The impacts of low literacy are well documented, from higher health care costs to limits in health access and poorer health outcomes, including increased ER visits and hospitalization rates.

The pandemic has shown that the health literacy gap creates a vacuum of knowledge in which misinformation can get in. On the one hand, our battle with COVID-19 has transformed the language of the everyday and opened the door for the understanding of medical information to be more commonplace. But people now need to be more fluent in critical scientific thinking than ever before to get real and actionable information that is in their better interest. People will build a greater sense of belief in information that fits their logic and emotionally aligns to their understandings. That puts an onus on communicators to consider the experience of their audience that is least equipped to decipher information and share it in a way that fits to their needs and context. Adding three foundational disciplines to any content strategy can ensure that it’s built from the ground up to bridge the literacy gap:

  1. Breadcrumbs: A study comparing the eye patterns of high- and low-literacy users as they navigate reading health information showed that low-literacy users need to track back often and repeat reading information as they slowly progress through content. We’ve all experienced that to some extent as we try to get a level of understanding from the wall of text that health information often presents us with. When you consider the education and language barriers that are often creating low health literacy, the effort needed to get from curiosity to understanding—and through to informed action—is filled with frustration. As communicators, we have the opportunity to ease that with how we plan our content strategy. While we may have a lot of messages we want our users to understand, it’s on us to break it apart into bite-sized knowledge to make sure they are following along at the right pace. 

The key is organizing content themes in a way that lays out a clear path from one singular point of learning to the next. Knowing how hard it is to connect content to audience, we are tempted to pack it all in. That temptation exacerbates the problem. Instead, it’s important to understand the audience journey and plan your content as part of the experience along the way—with each point of connection having a singular objective of what new knowledge it is trying to instill.

  1. Mixed Medium: One of the core tenets of a good content strategy is creating a consistent voice. But sometimes, if you’re not careful, trying to create a consistent voice can have an unfortunate consequence: homogeneous content. If we can learn from the modes of communication that misinformation is taking, we can see the power of content diversity. From short form to long form, video to image, brochures to meme, keeping the message consistent while being flexible with its delivery is a powerful force in breaking through.

Understanding that each patient’s obstacles are personal and different means it’s essential to put them and their experiences at the center of content consideration.

  • If overall English comprehension is the obstacle, how do we convey information primarily visually?
  • If cultural sensitivities are the barrier, consider how the content can be inclusive and representative.
  • HCPs are also in need of more diverse tools for their conversations with their patients; a content strategy should reflect that unmet need.  

  1. Action: “What do I need to do?” If content isn’t clearly and universally answering that question, does is ultimately meet the objective? Does this content give the patient tools to know how to act? Does it help the HCP communicate or facilitate a shared decision quickly and with a mutual understanding of each of its constituent factors? Taking all this as a primary critical lens in shaping strategy ensures that it is driving behavior change. Actions—and the language used to convey them—need to be as simple as possible, so they are repeatable and impactful. Considering how that action can be motivated seamlessly across all channels and connections that patient may pass in their path to care should be the litmus test of all content strategies.

As health literacy issues continue to create larger divides in access and outcomes, the need to build our communications strategy as a bridge serves everyone. Relieving the tensions that confusion, misunderstanding, and misinformation create can help us overcome more and more barriers to an overall better health system.

About the Author:

Ofer Erenfeld is a brand strategist driven by the principle that the key to building relationships between brand and audience is empathetic storytelling, engagement that forces them to rethink what they know and inspire you to act. His expertise is in transforming a mix of data and cultural anthropology into clear and actionable communication strategies for many of the world’s biggest brands.