Casual language may seem like an easy way to make content more understandable, but there is such a thing as being too casual.

Most communications sent to members by health plans are intended to prompt some sort of action – get your flu shot, schedule a breast cancer screening, complete an eye exam, and so on. But if that message is lost in complicated language or an overly long document, members might not take the recommended action, which could put their health at risk.

A recent study by VisibleThread found that nearly 87% of Medicare communications aren’t understood by Medicare members. Further, an analysis of 30 U.S. insurers found that only six used an acceptable level of word density in their communications.

You don’t have to be a healthcare expert to know that people are more likely to respond to communications that are easy to understand. So how can plans make sure their message doesn’t read like a medical textbook? Here are six tips:

Explain complex medical words and phrases in plain language

 This can be a challenge considering some words such as “ophthalmologist” or “mammogram” are often necessary to include. But the goal isn’t to completely eliminate these terms, it’s to educate people about what they mean and why they matter.

For example, if a health plan offers a member an incentive for an eye screening, a typical message might read, “Schedule an appointment with your ophthalmologist and attest to the visit when completed to receive your reward.” But a much simpler and easy-to-understand option would be “It’s time to schedule an appointment with your ophthalmologist (a special doctor for your eyes). Once you’ve completed this activity, let us know. Then we’ll send you the gift card of your choice.”

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Both options mean the same thing, but the second is more conversational, easier to understand and will likely result in more screenings.

Use thoughtful design to help readability

 While the goal is always making things easier to understand, it’s not always possible to make medical communications short and sweet. In situations that require more content, a thoughtful use of design elements can help a communication piece feel far less intimidating.

If your communication contains multiple paragraphs, for example, consider using bullet points, numbered lists or color-coded text to help the reader consume the content more efficiently. Other design elements such as icons or graphic illustrations can also help drive home a message or convey an idea so it’s easier to understand. As a general rule of thumb, longer pieces of content should contain one if not several visual breaks to help guide readers through it.

Make sure your channel message is appropriate

 Not every message is suitable for every channel. Consider a piece of content designed to welcome new members to the plan. Since this communication needs to give members a significant amount of information, it should be shared via email or traditional mail, because it’s likely the member will want to keep it on hand to reference at a later date.

However, when it comes to quick messages such as a reminder to schedule or confirm an appointment, text messaging is one of the best options. Nearly everyone has a cell phone and is likely to read and respond to short texts.

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The complexity and length of the message are two of the main factors to consider when determining how to deploy it and in which channel.

Avoid clichés, idioms and slang

 Casual language may seem like an easy way to make content more understandable, but there is such a thing as being too casual. Phrases that are common in day-to-day speech but not in formal writing can often alienate readers and lead to misinterpretation. The better option is to use simple language that is both clear and concise.

Using slang and cliches can also be confusing to those who are non-native English speakers. Making use of plain language makes translation much easier because slang and idioms often don’t directly translate.

Don’t just tell members what to do—tell them why it matters

 One of the best ways to motivate members is to clarify what’s in it for them. For example, if the goal is to get members to close more care gaps, it’s not enough to simply encourage them to schedule an appointment. You need to also communicate why it’s important and lay out the positive impact it will have on their health.

A message that reads, “It’s time for your breast cancer screening, call us to schedule an appointment” is technically fine, but it’s unlikely to inspire any action. A better option would be: “A breast cancer screening (also called a mammogram) could help find cancer early, when it may be easier to treat. This is the best test doctors use to find breast cancer. Schedule an appointment with your doctor today.”

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The second option is educational, encouraging, and tells members why it’s important to take the initiative and schedule an appointment.

Don’t over rely on readability tools

 Online tools allow you to gauge the readability of your content by assigning it a score and/or grade level. While useful, these tools shouldn’t be overly relied on because while they can tell you the grade level of your content, they can’t tell you that your message is clear to the reader. It’s much better to employ a skilled content creator who understands both context and nuance. That’s not to suggest that readability tools are useless, they just shouldn’t be the final say.

Better health content can lead to improved health outcomes

Health plans and providers want to make people healthier, and communication plays a critical role. It’s not hyperbole to say that poor communication — or a complete lack thereof — can escalate into life-or-death situations. But simply sending members content is not enough. There must be a clear strategy in place to ensure that content is understandable.

It’s not a magic formula; when people understand what’s being asked of them and why it’s important, they’re more likely to engage in their care and complete the activities that are important to their health. When this happens at scale over time, plans are more likely to see an improvement in overall population health. Content matters, and so does your message. Just remember that your members are people, not PhDs, and you’ll be on the right track.

Laura Emiola is senior director of experience and design at NovuHealth.

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