Creating Public Health Content That Actually Reaches People

If you ask a random sampling of people on the street, you’ll find that our health has become a popular, and often controversial, subject. Opinions regarding GMOs, vaccines, and the fluoridation of our drinking water vary widely in scope, despite a wide consensus in the medical community. Thanks to popular media health moguls like Dr. Oz and The Doctors, who sell flashy health information couched in partial truths, disseminating quality health information has become a challenge for practitioners.

Consider, for example, the media maelstrom in response to the World Health Organization deeming of bacon and other processed meats as carcinogenic. “Bacon to be Classified as Dangerous as Cigarettes,” claimed one article. “Bacon as Deadly as Cigarettes and Asbestos,” shouted another.

While not wholly untrue, the popular media ran gleefully with the assumption that enjoying a slab of bacon with your breakfast weekly or indulging in a burger once in a while will kill you as quickly as smoking a pack a day, ignoring the basic principles of epidemiology and disease pathology.

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Professionals in the medical field have to deal with this misinformation every day. My husband is a medical student completing his clinical rotations at a large Midwestern hospital system. One day, he was taking a history on a patient and asked about her smoking history. She said that she smoked almost two packs a day, and he asked if she had ever considered quitting, to which she replied that she didn’t have to.

“I drink a lot of water,” she explained. “It flushes out all of the toxins from the cigarettes so I don’t have to worry.”

Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is more common than it should be. We live in an area where 1 in 3 residents live below the poverty line, and many citizens in our area suffer from Below Basic health literacy.

All over the country, health literacy poses a barrier to accessing important medical services and improving community health. An estimated 12% of adults have a health literacy level that our government deems as “proficient,” meaning that nearly 9 out of 10 citizens have trouble accessing and absorbing quality health information. The internet can be a powerful tool for providing this material, but only when it’s read by the right people. Curating public health content can be a struggle, but it’s one worth undertaking. Consider adding these actionable tips to your public health content tool box:

Be Plain (But Not TOO Plain)

As health practitioners, we may feel compelled to use the terminology that we learned for disease treatment and prevention, but the reality is, most people don’t have a clear understanding of what these terms mean. Provide advice that is free of medical jargon, makes sense, and contains information that seems doable. Consider the following examples:

  1. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 90 minutes of vigorous exercise a week to maintain optimal cardiovascular health and prevent complications associated with chronic disease like diabetes and hypertension.
  2. Take your dog for a walk a few times a week, or grab a friend and enjoy a jog a couple of times a week to ward off heart disease. Exercising regularly can reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure and other conditions that can cause heart attacks.

The average reader is more likely to make sense of the second set of information. While both examples contain the same advice, the second example is that is actionable, instead of confusing.

Best practices also suggest that health information should be easily digestible in short blocks. Try using paragraphs that are no longer than three sentences each. Place emphasis on bulleted lists and images, as these are easier to absorb than long chunks of text.

Healt Literacy

While we tend to focus on communicating health information effectively, we could also take some cues from the popular media when it comes to creating headlines. A typical web user stays on a page for 15 seconds or less: the key is to engage them for as long as possible by creating compelling reasons to read on. In our previous exercise example, “Exercise Associated With Positive Health Outcomes,” might be a true headline, but “X Ways Exercise Can Save Your Life,” is both true and encourages the user to read on. Towing the line between fact and sensationalism can be tricky, but it can also make the difference between people reading your health content or clicking out of your page.

Take Cues From Web Design

We often hear of the concept of “responsive web design,” and in low-literacy users, this concept is more important than ever. Your health website should be easily accessible from any device: computer, phone, or tablet. Low-literacy users are less likely to have home computers, so your site’s mobile experience should be as flawless as possible.

Research also shows that limited literacy readers are even less likely to scroll than the general populace. For this reason, you should place your most important information “above the fold,” so to speak. Journalists refer to this technique as an “inverted pyramid”: place your takeaway points as early in your content as possible.

Conduct Usability Testing

The authors of health.gov recently published an updated version of best practices when it comes to health literacy. In it, they suggest that one of the most important things you can do is regularly assess how usable your health website is. If you’re working with a public health organization or non-profit, there are still ways you can accomplish this under your financial constraints.

  • Consider putting together a focus group to talk about your website’s usability. Concentrate on recruiting populations that are more likely to struggle with low health literacy, like senior citizens, minorities, and lower income residents.
  • Have participants bring their own devices when conducting usability testing. This ensures that you’re getting the most accurate information possible.

When it comes to public health, writers, editors, and content managers face unique trials to get people to absorb and use medical advice. With the proper strategies, however, we can rise to the challenge and curate a quality experience that improves community health outcomes.

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Sarah Voightman

Sarah is a displaced Michigander who currently calls suburban Cleveland home. When not reading or writing, she can be found navigating the tumultuous waters of parenthood and dreaming of returning to her beloved Mitten State.

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