Creating and using forms - make it easy

Communication and Health Literacy

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Main point

Research shows many people have difficulty filling in health forms. When people have difficulty filling in forms, some choose to guess answers, others give up and leave. The 'brave' ask for help.

Creating forms: the content

  • Limit your questions. Only ask the questions you need to ask.
  • Provide information at the top of the form about:
  • eligibility for services sought through the form (finding out you are ineligible for a service after completing the application form can be frustrating; it's best if people can get an indication of eligibility before filling in the form)
  • why the information is being collected and how it will be used.
  • Use plain language. When you need to use medical terms, like 'mammogram' or 'incontinence', provide an explanation of the term the first time you use it.
  • Provide check boxes for common answers: this is helpful for people who are not comfortable writing.
  • Provide 'don't know' options, to discourage people from guessing answers.
  • Avoid abbreviations. Where you need to use abbreviations, use the full name or word the first time, with the abbreviation in brackets.

Creating forms: the look and format

  • Use the appropriate style guide.
  • Make the form look appealing and easy to read:
  • Aim for 40–50 per cent white (blank) space so the pages are not crowded.
  • Provide plenty of space for people to write their answers.
  • Use bold font for important words/phrases; avoid UPPER CASE ONLY (even in headings), minimise use of italics and only use underline for web addresses.
  • Use a reasonable font size (Gil Sans MT, font size 11 for DHHS).
  • Number the questions. This will make it easier for the person to find where they were up to if they are interrupted.
  • Use a checklist like the 26TEN Forms Checklist

Using forms

  • Test the form with people from your target audience. Consider the following questions:
    • Which section or questions did you find hardest to answer? Tell me about that.
    • Were any of the questions ambiguous (could be read two different ways), unclear or confusing?
    • Were there any questions you felt uncomfortable about answering? Why?
    • Were there any questions you had difficulty answering?
    • Were any of the question/answer combinations missing an answer option?
  • While many people prefer a hard copy form they can complete in the reception or waiting room, others prefer to download a form, print it out, complete it in their own time (perhaps with help from a friend or family member) and bring it to their appointment, or complete an online form. Providing options may:
  • save time – for the consumer and the service
  • provide you with more readable forms and more accurate information
  • reduce the need for printing.
  • Offer all consumer assistance to complete forms; for example, "Lots of people find these forms difficult, would you like a hand with it?"
  • Encourage all consumers to seek help if anything is unclear in the form (for example, "It's common for people to need a hand with these forms, and it's part of my job to help. So if anything isn't clear, come and ask me."

January 2019