Skip main navigation

Plain language over overcomplicated lexicon

In order to provide the best care possible, communication with patients should always be understandable, through the use of plain language.
Two icons of heads face to face, the head on the left has a speech bubble inside and the one in the right has a tangled line.
© Prashanth Rapolu from the Noun Project CC0

Nouri and Rudd (2015) state that the communication between healthcare provider and patient has a major role in the patient’s health, knowledge, decision making and motivation. They conclude that the speaking and listening skills patients and healthcare providers have, in what they describe as the “Oral exchange”, are critical for that communication to be effective.

The use of plain language has been identified in literature as a way of reducing the literacy demands on the patient, meaning a more effective communication which can lead to better health outcomes. (Nouri & Rudd, 2015)

This was reinforced by the systematic review by Jager et al (2019), referred to in Week 2, which identified the need, from the patient’s perspective, for health professionals to have a Comprehensible Communication Style.

As we have seen previously and explored in relation to well-designed forms, the use of medical jargon is a barrier to patients understanding. According to patients with limited health literacy, healthcare providers tend to use medical jargon which leads to understanding issues when it comes to medical information, patients preferred easy language and less use of medical jargon. Patients perceived the use of medical jargon as lack of communication, which had a negative impact on their health, self-management behaviour, emotions, and mental well-being.

In addition, healthcare providers should be mindful about the amount of information they provide to patients with limited health literacy and align information on diagnosis and treatment with the patient’s needs. In the systematic review, many patients mentioned that they prefer getting a diagnosis and treatment information separately. In the systematic review, many patients mentioned that they prefer getting a diagnosis and treatment information separately.

To better understand this, let us imagine you asked for a recipe from one of your friends who happens to be a professional chef, your friend accepts and starts giving you the recipe, at some point your friend says that you must “sweat” the diced onions, not “sauté” them or you will end up with an “Oignon brule”. To which you have no idea what any of that means and you don’t ask in fear of being considered a bad cook, so you just end up ruining your meal.

Well, that is something similar to what patients deal with when medical terms are used instead of plain language, terms such as hypertension, hypoglycemia or bradycardia instead of high blood pressure, low blood sugar or slow heartbeat respectively, just to mention a few. But in the patients’ case if they can’t properly understand what the healthcare provider means, their life could be at risk.


Nouri, S. S., & Rudd, R. E. (2015). Health literacy in the “oral exchange”: An important element of patient–provider communication. Patient education and counseling, 98(5), 565-571.

Jager, M., de Zeeuw, J., Tullius, J., Papa, R., Giammarchi, C., Whittal, A., & de Winter, A. F. (2019). Patient Perspectives to Inform a Health Literacy Educational Program: A Systematic Review and Thematic Synthesis of Qualitative Studies. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(21), 4300.

© IMPACCT consortium
This article is from the free online

Working with Patients with Limited Health Literacy

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now