Two-minute tips

Communication and Health Literacy

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Main points

  1. Slow down.
  2. Use plain language.
  3. Limit the number of messages.
  4. Confirm understanding using open-ended questions.
  5. Support verbal communication with written information.

Healthcare and community workers often under-estimate:

  • how much difficulty people have understanding what they are told about their health and wellbeing, including advice and instructions
  • how worried people are about asking questions about their health and healthcare
  • how important it is for people to ask questions about their health and healthcare.

"No-one tells you. You have to ask.
But a lot of people don't know how or are too scared to ask questions.
I go with a list of questions, I'm game enough."

(Lifeline Chats Focus Group participant, in Department of Health and Human Services, Communication and Health Literacy Action Plan 2010–2013. Population Health Services, DHHS, Hobart, 2010.)

How to make your spoken communication more effective

Start well

Give a warm greeting, such as “Hello, my name is…” introduce yourself and explain your role. Speak clearly, with a friendly, respectful tone. Remember your face and gestures also communicate. Sit down if the other person is sitting; stand if they are standing.

Respect and value the person

Give the person a sense of control. For example, ask "is it okay if I ask some questions about what's been happening?" Maintain eye contact however be aware of culturally appropriate behaviour.1

Slow down

When you're busy it's often reflected in the way you speak: fast. By speaking more slowly and pausing after key points, it's easier for people to absorb the information you are providing, reflect on it and ask questions.

It also suggests you have time to answer questions.

Use plain language

As a general rule, be guided by the words the consumer uses to describe their condition.

Be consistent with word use.

Limit your messages

In general, people only remember three to five points from a conversation, so if possible, discuss only three to five points at a time.

Use descriptions people can relate to

For example, suggest "feel for lumps about the size of a pea" rather than "feel for lumps about 5 to 6 millimetres in diameter".

Use open-ended questions

For example, ask "How much time do you spend sitting most days?" rather than" Do you spend a lot of time sitting?"

Confirm understanding

For example, ask them to repeat back what you have said in their own words to check you have explained it well enough.

Encourage questions

Ask: "what else would you like to know?" rather than "do you have any questions?"

Pause after each main point to give people time to consider what you've said and ask questions.

Use visual aids

Draw simple pictures, use models or demonstrations.

Provide written information as a back-up

Written information provides a useful reminder of your main points, and can be useful for carers and family members. Tailor written communication to the person's needs by circling important information or writing extra notes while you are with them.


1. Queensland Health, Five Cross Cultural Capabilities for clinical staff. Division of the Chief Health Officer, Queensland Health, Brisbane, 2010, viewed 30 August, 2018 www.health.qld.gov.au/multicultural/health_workers/CCC-clinical.pdf

Updated December 2018