Fostering Health Literacy: Simple Messages Simply Work

Hannah Sabbagh, MPH ’14 in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences


We’ve all been confused after reading a health-related article. No matter how important the tip or advice, sometimes health information can seem so complex that we do not process it in a way that sticks. The more overwhelming the message, the more likely we’re going to ignore it and leave our old habits unchanged. As a Health Promotion student in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health, I’ve learned that this response is common. But this is not what practitioners hope to elicit. Through my internship with the Harlem Health Promotion Center, I practice crafting health messages that will be processed and remembered, rather than leave the audience confused and flustered.

When I began my internship, my first few days were spent reading a large stack of papers about health literacy that my supervisor Carly Hutchinson, director of Communications and Community Relations, handed to me, familiarizing myself with the topic. What I discovered in those pages, and what I have been discovering on the job, is that the importance of easily understood and audience-appropriate health messages cannot be overstated. I have learned that while it may seem easy to make health information simple, fostering health literacy is more complex than you might think. It can take several weeks of refining before a health message is ready to be shared with the larger community.

My supervisor, Carly Hutchinson, handing me health literacy documents.

My supervisor, Carly Hutchinson, handing me health literacy documents.

Often, a message of health is lost in translation. Making health literacy a regular consideration can prevent this from happening. To produce health literate content, the Center relies on a dictionary of words used throughout the website that we call our “Healthopedia.” It is a consistent part of our content creation and it helps our site users with terms that they may be unfamiliar with. The words range from “biopsy” and “gastroenterologist” to “smoothie” and “organic.” We link terms to the Healthopedia as often as possible, and we add anything we think might be unclear so that readers not only understand the intended meaning of what we’re saying, but also learn new things.

Providing definitions and avoiding flowery language is just one method we use to keep our site easily accessible. I recently wrote a definition of Mood Disorders, but boiled it down to a quick sentence: “A mood disorder is a psychological condition that results in changes in mood, such as depression.” Within the definition itself, a site user would then have the opportunity to look at the definition of depression if he or she wanted more information.

Just an average day working onhealth literacy.

Just an average day working on health literacy.

In writing Healthy Tips, we make sure that we do our best to understand the needs of our website users and encourage realistic goals. We try to promote small changes that make a big difference and seem easy to accomplish. For instance, we might encourage our readers to take walks during a lunch break if they don’t feel they can spare 30 extra minutes per day to exercise.

Another part of making our content as accessible as possible is making sure that people are motivated to read it. Our Healthy Tips of the Week are usually no more than 200 words, and we use bullet points and numbered lists to highlight important action steps or bits of information. This makes it easier for our readers to sign on and find the meat of what we want to tell them right away. There are no large, dense blocks of text, and the site utilizes a lot of colorful pictures.

We often get together to discuss the best ways to approach health communication as a team.

We often get together to discuss the best ways to approach health communication as a team.

Learning to write an engaging Healthy Tip of the Week required studying, believe it or not! Not only did I review the academic sources from my supervisor, but I also read through the hundreds of previously posted tips to gather ideas and become comfortable with the general format. Throughout my internship, I have enjoyed the challenge of parsing down language and learning to write so that the most important information is presented clearly right away. Through this, I’ve learned that less can be more.

As someone who is used to writing dense academic papers, learning to make my writing less formal was a challenge. Now that I have been with the Harlem Health Promotion Center for several months, however, I have a much better idea of why it’s necessary. It is truly rewarding to see someone read a health-conscious tip and finally understand what it means to have high blood pressure or why they need to take their medication. The empathy and understanding I have gained from this internship will stay with me into my courses at Mailman and my future career. In fact, I’ll be taking a Health Literacy course in the fall, and I already anticipate raising my hand a lot!





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