When people hear the term “health literacy,” most envision patients struggling to find and digest information about their own health care needs. But health literacy principles also apply to physicians and other industry professionals who rely on journal articles, conference posters, research reports and other materials to understand ongoing trends in their field.

Professional literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, understand, and act on complex, scientific information needed to make appropriate clinical or health system decisions. According to a 2015 survey, physicians spend an average of nearly six hours per month reading medical publications, and review an average of four journals per month. Fully 60 percent of them regularly or often use peer-reviewed journals as a source of continuing professional development.

These materials have significant impact on their careers and the patients they serve. A report published in 2014 shows 16 percent of physicians reported saving a patient’s life in the previous year due to news they read in medical literature, and nearly 75 percent said they change their clinical practices quarterly or monthly based on reading these materials.

So much to read, so little time

The goals of most health care publications, scientific posters and other material is to communicate relevant information and context to enable appropriate clinical decisions and stimulate research while establishing a peer-reviewed evidence base. Yet these goals can sometimes conflict with needs of busy health care professionals. Anyone who has ever tried to scan a peer-reviewed scientific journal knows how difficult it can be to find a specific piece of information, or to get an overall sense of an article.

Common barriers such as time constraints, fatigue, the desire to skim for information, and an overload of information can further impact a professional’s ability to select and process the valuable content offered through these publications. And as they transition from print to mobile device formats, these may barriers only get worse.

These obstacles can be counterproductive for authors and readers, both of whom benefit from content written and published in a way that is easy to comprehend. Authors who produce material that is engaging and digestible are more likely to garner a broad audience and to provide readers with a clear understanding of their work and message, and readers are able to absorb those messages more readily so they can apply them in their work.

The good news is that we can leverage the same best practice guidelines that drive clear communication in patient-focused health materials for professional literature:

Use active voice, concise sentences, and shorter paragraphs

  • Many authors use passive voice due to the perception that it sounds more “objective” or “scientific.” Active voice, however, sends a stronger and more concise message that enhances clinical relevance. Developers of writing guidelines, including those in the AMA Manual of Style and many scientific journals, have recognized the need to improve readability, and have specified the use of active voice in most instances. For example, even a simple modification from the passive “it was concluded that” into “we concluded that” or “evidence suggests that” can reduce awkward sentence structure and bring focus onto the conclusion itself.
  • This tone also drives confidence in the source and motivation to stay engaged with a publication.
    It is also important to break down longer, narrative passages into smaller paragraphs to give readers a chance to transition their thought from one concept to the next. This is called “chunking” content and offers a rest for the reader. Authors can also ensure that the material is understood by summarizing key takeaways in a short paragraph or listing. This is particularly important when closing a longer publication and ensures that the reader retains key takeaways and desired actions.

Follow a consistent format throughout

  • Using consistent design elements (such as colors, fonts, headers, subheaders, and bullet patterns) offers consistent structure that enable readers to scan, orient and move smoothly through pages. These elements serve as “road signs” and help readers to find the information that is most relevant to their needs. It is also important to apply formatting to the text itself, such as keeping a consistent order of comparisons (eg. results for product A followed by product B) and figures (eg. product A to the left of product B on all bar graphs).

Use white space to improve readability

  • Maintain adequate white space (add reference) including margins, spaces between columns, and before and after headings to provide a visual rest for the reader and to prevent the document from looking cramped or crowded. Authors may need to reduce the amount of content to allow for adequate white space.

Include charts, graphs, bulleted lists and informative subheads to break-up content

  • Charts, figures and illustrations not only serve to break up content, but are especially effective at conveying certain types of information. These elements are particularly useful when attempting to enhance the processing and understanding of complex concepts. For example, a table may be the most efficient way of visualizing large amounts of data, while a figure may be best at conveying a key finding or focused concept.

Choose fonts, font sizes, and color schemes that make content easier to read and understand

  • Use the appropriate type style to facilitate easy reading. For example, serif type (font has additional markings at the end of characters, such as Times New Roman) facilitates easier reading of text passages due to character recognition, while sans serif (without additional markings on characters, such as Arial) , are preferred for titles and headings as well as smaller captions for their clean lines and ability to stand out. The choice of font may also influence size needed for readability.
    Use uppercase and lowercase letters for text and most headers to improve tone and readability. Using all capital letters not only convey a tone of “shouting,” but are more difficult to read.
  • While color may add aesthetics to a presentation or document, the primary purpose of color in a scientific work should be to convey information most effectively. Choose a color scheme that utilizes contrasting colors and highlights differences in text sections and data without adding distractions.

Submission guidelines and required styles for some scientific publications can make it difficult to incorporate all of these health literacy guidelines, but even small changes can have an impact. Whether you are producing a peer-reviewed article, news story, blog post, or an industry presentation, writing with a clear purpose and creating content designed with the reader’s needs in mind will make it easier for your audience to engage with your work, and for you to share your knowledge with your peers.


> This post -- co-authored by Sharon Suntag, MS, CMPP, medical communications director at QuintilesIMS -- originally appeared in the DIA's Global Forum.


Topics in this blog post: Medical Writing, Biopharma, Patient-centered