When it Comes to Healthcare Content, Readability Matters

If you want your healthcare content to be understood and effective, make it easy to read. Fascinating facts, great stories and persuasive copywriting mean nothing if your patients or business prospects can’t or won’t take the time to read them. Even in the best of times, it takes skill to capture the attention of a distracted audience. During a pandemic, it is even more challenging.

Don’t Overestimate the Health Literacy Level of Your Audience

It may come as no surprise that U.S. adults have a low health literacy rate — their ability to access, understand and process health information. In 2003, when health literacy was last assessed, only 12 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 16 performed at the highest literacy proficiency level. What is surprising is that only 24 percent with bachelor’s degrees and 33 percent of those with advanced degrees met that bar.

Meet your audience at their reading level

The average U.S. adult reads at or below the 8th grade level. That means that if you write your patient education pamphlets, health and wellness websites, brochures, and even sales sheets at a high school or college reading level, you’re going to lose the majority of your readers. Keep your content between a 7th and 8th grader reading level to ensure the widest audience.

Don’t worry that your content won’t be sophisticated enough for scientists, specialists and corporate executives with advanced degrees. They also appreciate simplicity. With busy days and multiple deadlines, they often don’t have the mental energy to absorb lengthy, complex and abstract prose.

Keep your readers engaged

Writing content that is simple, interesting, and persuasive takes skill. It’s a constant exercise in paring down, shortening sentences, and replacing complex words with simpler ones. Writing to an elementary reading level does not mean your writing has to be elementary. It will not insult a professional’s intelligence or keep you from being able to cover everything you need to communicate. When you do it right, your copy isn’t boring. It pulls the reader in.

Take a lead from print journals like The New York Times to ensure you’re getting your message across to the professionals you want to address. They write to a 6th to 7th grade level. Even better, the New Yorker and Economist shoot for a 5th grade level.

To write content that gets read, understood and even shared, consider the following tips:

  • Start with what you want to say and then pare it down by as much as 50%.
  • Shoot for 20 to 25 words per sentence, varying sentence length for interest.
  • Keep your average character per word count around 5.
  • Make all verbs active, not passive. (i.e. change “Medication should be taken…” to “take this medication…”)
  • Eliminate unnecessary adverbs.
  • Use a readability rating tool to test your content.

Run your content through a readability rating tool

Happily there are many good online tools for measuring readability. Different tools use different measuring scales. Flesch-Kincaid is the most popular scale used, with a good readability score being 60 or over. The options I find the most useful are:

  • Microsoft Office Word: If you use Word, you can set preferences to provide Readability scores after it finishes checking spelling and grammar. It provides average words per sentence, Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and tells you the percentage of passive sentences in your copy.
  • Readable: This page allows you to test the readability of your text and see where it can be improved. In addition to this free calculator, Readable offers different plans, starting at $4/month for a single user. Other plans offer additional editing features.
  • WebFX:  This free readability test tool lets you test a block of text or text from a website url. It provides scores from several measuring scales, text statistics and visual indicator bars that indicate if your copy is good to go.
  • Hemingway App: This $19.99 app not only gives you your scores but also helps improve readability by suggesting edits to words and phrases.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

If you feel like your content is getting ignored, it may be time to rework it for a broader audience. If you’d like help, I work with healthcare companies to develop content that builds awareness and generates leads. Contact me for a free 15 minute consultation.

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