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Health Communication

Universal Precautions

Adequately evaluating the health literacy level of every client or patient you see is neither feasible nor effective. As a result the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) recommends taking a Universal Precautions approach to health literacy: 

Assume all patients or clients may have
difficulty comprehending health
information and accessing health services

To help clinicians, the AHRQ has put together a Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit.

Health Communication Basics

Effectively communicating with your clients, patients, and the general public is a crucial part of improving their health and well being. 

So what is Health Communication?

  • Verbal Communication
    • the words you use to talk about health topics and your patients/clients lives
    • printed materials (information sheets, discharge orders, etc.)
    • healthcare facility signs
  • Non-verbal Communication
    • eye contact
    • facial expression
    • body positioning
    • tone of voice
    • talking speed
    • demeanor (patience level, mood, etc.)
  • Communication Boosters
    • images used in handouts or displays
    • models and devices for demonstration

Plain Language

Plain language is clear communication that the general public can easily understand. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has a great page explaining the details about plain language. 

Plain Language Basics

  • replaces technical and complex words with everyday language
  • provides the important information without unnecessary extras
  • explains technical terms clearly when they are necessary
  • engages listeners and readers with personal pronouns and active voice

Testing your Materials for Plain Language

Use the tools below to help you figure out whether your handouts, displays, etc. use any language that might be hard for your audience to understand.

CDC Clear Communication Index

More Education about Plain Language

Plain Language Medical Dictionary

Plain Language Materials at Bellack Library

Children's books can be helpful in identifying easily understood language. Here are a few of the children's books we have in Bellack's collection.

Additional Books at Bellack about Plain Language

Teach Back

The Teach Back Method 

  • Helps clinicians be sure they communicated information and instructions clearly
  • Is a shame-free method, focusing on how well the clinician communicated and is not a test of the patient/client
  • Asks the client or patient to explain or demonstrate the information that was just provided
  • Gives clinicians a chance to verify understanding and correct any miscommunications.


Here are some documents that will help you learn and improve your own teach back practice.

Creating Handouts

Before You Begin

  • What is the purpose of your handout? Try to stay focused on one or two messages.
  • Who is the audience?
  • How much information are you trying to convey (is the amount appropriate for a handout)?

Preparing the Content

  • Find evidence for the recommendations, data, or other information in your handout
  • Identify the key points
  • Identify need for images


  • Follow plain language recommendations
  • Use short sentences (15-20 words) and short paragraphs
  • Use positive recommendations


  • Separate paragraphs and sections with white space
  • Use headings to introduce sections
  • Use lists and bullets to display information


  • Use them, but make sure they are relevant
  • Tables and charts can be more effective than data in paragraphs


  • Use clear, unadorned fonts
  • Be sure copies/print-outs are of good quality

(Adapted from OSU College of Medicine's In Plain Words: Creating Easy to Read Handouts and  Plain Language at AHRQ)

Health Communication Theories

Evidence shows that grounding your health promotion activity in a communication theory leads to more effective outcomes (Corcoran, 2007).

Corcoran, N. (2007). Theories and models in communication health messages. In N. Corcoran (Ed.) Communicaing health: Strategies for health promotion. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.