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Plain Language is Essential in Public Health Emergencies

Categories: Plain language

This week, Dagny Olivares from CDC’s Emergency Communication team blogs about plain language and public health emergencies.

September is National Preparedness Month. Across the country, it’s a time to take stock of how prepared we are to withstand and respond to emergency situations that affect us, our families, and our communities. At CDC, we make sure that we are prepared to protect the nation’s health from whatever threatens it, be that natural disaster, disease outbreak, or emerging hazard. To do that, we are working to ensure that plain language is a part of our emergency communication planning. Steps we are taking include

  • Training staff to understand and use the principles of plain language when developing and reviewing emergency communication  materials;
  • Prioritizing plain language along with such message characteristics as accuracy, timeliness, and consistency; and 
  • Working with subject matter experts to review our existing emergency materials so that we can make them more understandable and accessible.

The updated  CDC 2012 edition of the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) manual states, “Technical language and jargon are barriers to successful communication with the public. In low-trust, high-concern situations, empathy and caring carry more weight than numbers and technical facts.” Public health professionals must make plain language a core tenet of their emergency and risk communication strategies because people need to be able to understand and act upon health information quickly in times of stress and uncertainty.

What are you doing in your organizations to make plain language a part of your preparedness planning? What challenges are you facing in undertaking that mission? We’d love to hear about your experiences, tips, and lessons learned.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. October 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm ET  -   Alex C.

    It may seem like a minor subset of this discussion for the necessity for plain language in emergency situations, but I think it is important to remember that in chaotic situations such as these medical professionals such as physicians and EMS have a responsibility to diffuse the situation to the extent possible and reassure those who are in need of medical care that they will be safe to the extent possible. For this reason, medical jargon does not simply impede communication between medical professionals and the public, but it adds to the sense of confusion and terror held by those involved in the situation. As people, it is our duty to ACT as people, not to distance ourselves from the situation using language.

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  2. October 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm ET  -   Alicia Gray

    I am happy to see that the CDC is stepping forward to promote plain language in the healthcare community. I have recently taken a class on health literacy andI was shocked on how much I didn’t know about the subject and how much this country needs to solve this problem. Medical language is very confusing to patients who do not have a vast background in medicine. Patients should be able to leave their appointments knowing what is going on and can understand everything that the physician or nurse has told them. This is vital to effective healthcare.

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  3. October 9, 2012 at 10:43 am ET  -   Kate Harrison Whiteside

    International Plain Language Day Oct 13 will be celebrating exactly this – clear language – and health is one of the topics for the virtual event on YouTube and Slideshare IPLDay channels. See you there. And, thanks CDC.

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  4. October 3, 2012 at 12:44 am ET  -   Max K

    Plain language is necessary in situations like mass casualties and natural disasters. If a healthcare worker cannot relay fast, critical information to non-medical personnel effectively, then the whole operation will be compromised. I believe that medical jargon should be completely eliminated in instances such as these just for the sake of easy communication without having to think about it.

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  5. October 3, 2012 at 12:36 am ET  -   Max K

    It is critical for EMS staff as well as physicians to maintain a quick and dirty vocabulary, especially in situations of mass casualties and public disasters. In situations such as these, there may be many emergency personal and volunteers unfamiliar with medical diction. Conveying information in a clear and concise manner is critical in situations such as these and thus it is important for healthcare providers to maintain a vocabulary that anyone can understand.

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