Defining Readability

As professional communicators, we understand the importance of writing for our audience. But as healthcare communicators, the topics we cover can get complex quite fast. We’ve got a tough job – attempting to strike the right balance for explaining the latest oncology treatment with the fact some of our readers might not even know what oncology means. How do we justify the terminology choices we make on the Web?

It all comes down to readability. Readability is the term used to describe how easy something is to read and understand. On the Web, readability relates closely with accessibility and usability.

Readability refers to health literacy in healthcare and plain language in government. Researchers have designed formulas to measure readability’s quantifiable characteristics: sentence length in words and vocabulary level. Content quality, style, design and organization play major roles, too, but are more difficult to measure.

If you’d like to learn more about readability and health literacy, check out the Health Literacy of America’s Adults report of 2003. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) set four levels for health literacy: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate and Proficient. 53% of American adults rated Intermediate, 22% Basic and 14% Below Basic.

Select health literacy tasks illustrate what the different levels require. The study demonstrates a variety of demographic variations to help identify audiences, including which audiences used which channels for health information, like the Internet, by proficiency level.

Test your own pages using online readability calculators like to get an idea of your writing level. You’ll get reports from a variety of formulas. If your text explains medical vocabulary terms using common health vocabulary, remove the technical terms and run the calculator a second time to see if you can achieve a 6-8th grade level on your pages.

Addressing health illiteracy is our job. Paying attention to readability is one way to make access to healthcare services and patient education materials as easy as possible.

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