Texas Perspectives

Zika Virus Shows Why We Need to Improve Health Communication

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If you struggled to make sense of the sentence above, you can begin to understand what it is like to be one of the estimated one-third to one-half of Americans who struggles with understanding health information.

Simply put, health literacy is a major concern facing the U.S. health care system, and it needs to get better soon. As someone who studies health literacy, I can say low health literacy has been linked to a variety of negative health issues and increased costs.

Those who have less than adequate health literacy often struggle finding, understanding, using and communicating about health information to make informed health decisions. This means they are more likely to make errors using their medication, fail to understand and follow health care providers’ instructions, and have more trouble managing chronic health conditions, whether it’s Zika, malaria or diabetes.

For Texas, it is of particular importance given that low health literacy is more common among elderly people, recent immigrants, and those who speak English as their second language.

When a pressing public health crisis such as Zika hits our state or country, complicated health information seems to pervade the mass media, social media and our conversations. It highlights the intricacy of health information and the way in which it is often communicated. The facts surrounding Zika — its origin, its characteristics, the process of attempting to develop a treatment and vaccines — are by their nature complex.

But some of that complexity is unnecessary. We need to simplify the language whenever possible.

“Diagnostics” should become “tests,” “transmission” should become “going from person to person,” and so on. Doing this will help people better understand what they are hearing.

Why don’t health professionals always do this now? In a word, time.

Jargon and complex terms make communication faster and more precise among experts. The need to communicate quickly in a public health crisis such as Zika makes it more challenging even for public health professionals who are aware of the need to simplify language to always do this well.

But although simplifying language might take more time, in the long run it can save time when people do not have to come back for clarification or ask for information they have already received but failed to understand.

Ensuring people understand health information is crucial for many reasons, not the least of which is that people take action based on what they think they know. Research shows that some who struggle with health information overestimate their understanding, leading to misinformed health decisions and behavior.

There is also evidence that some people might underestimate their own skills with health information, but the potential consequences, such as more caution or seeking more information before taking action, is less problematic.

The goal of any health communication is to promote health behavior change. But we need to keep in mind that simple, clear communication is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for promoting health behavior change. The garbage cans at health clinics are often filled with brochures and health information that were painstakingly edited for “plain language” — but end up so boring that people do not want to engage.

This is one reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Zombie Preparedness” campaign was such a brilliant approach when it launched in 2011. It was a creative way to encourage engagement on a topic (disaster preparation) that people might otherwise ignore.

The nature of the Zika virus means health communication efforts are currently receiving extra attention, but issues related to health literacy — and the importance of clear communication to effectively reach all members of the public — are constant and pervasive.

Lessons learned and practiced in a public health crisis can improve broader and ongoing efforts to communicate as clearly and simply as possible to improve the health of all. We can do better when it comes to health communication, and it starts with simplifying the language used.

Michael Mackert is an associate professor of advertising and public relations who studies health literacy at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Beaumont Enterprise and the McAllen Monitor.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.