Health Literacy Consulting
Making Numbers Make Sense
Health information is filled with numbers. This includes concepts such as quantity, time, and risk. But patients, caregivers, and the public often struggle to understand and use such numbers. Here are a dozen (12) ways to help make numbers make sense to others along with ways you can learn more.
- Confirm which measurement system to use, such as ounces or grams. Learn more: Health Literacy Out Loud (HLOL) podcast interview with Dr. Benard Dreyer and Dr. Shonna Yin, "Research About Using the Millileter as a Standard Unit for Liquid Medication."
- Mark how high to fill a drinking cup. Use a divided plate to show food portions.
- Compare to known quantities, such as “4 ounces of meat, about the same size as a deck of playing cards” or “5 pounds, about the same as a bag of flour.”
- Show pictures, such as thermometers of a normal temperature versus high fever.
- Schedule medication around a person’s daily habits, such as “Take 1 pill after brushing your teeth in the morning and again after brushing your teeth at night.” Learn more: HLOL podcast interview with Dr. Andrea Apter, "Health Numeracy, Helping Patients Understand Numeric Concepts."
- Talk in terms of the time-telling device that people use. Given how popular digital cellphones are these days, it makes sense to say "12:45" rather than wording more common to an analog watch, "Quarter to 1."
- Use pillboxes sectioned into day of week and time of day.
- Include pictures or icons representing time, such as sunrise and sunset. Learn more: Information from AHRQ about "How to Create a Pill Card."
- Provide context, such as stating what a person’s cholesterol level is this year versus last, or compared to others of the same age and with a comparable health history. Learn more: HLOL podcast interview with Sally Bigwood, "Presenting Data That Works for Most People, Most of the Time."
- When talking about studies, include the denominator (how many people were in the study) and time frame (over what period of time). Learn more: HLOL podcast interview with Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, PhD, "When Communicating Risk, Consider What Patients Need and Want to Know."
- As indicated, frame results as positive (95% of patients improve), not negative (5% of patients do not improve or get worse).
- Define important terms such as “common,” “rare,” and “often.” Learn more: HLOL podcast interview with Dr. David Nelson, "Clearly Communicating Scientific Information."
Let’s make this a “baker’s dozen” of 13 how-to ideas. Here’s 1 more:
- Be flexible about writing rules. Really, it’s okay to write “7” rather than “seven.”
Learn even more:
- HLOL podcast interview with Dr. Candace McNaughton, "Numeracy, Chronic Disease, and Repeat Emergency Room Visits or Hospitalizations."
- Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition, by Helen Osborne. Published by Jones & Bartlett Learning. Available from the publisher's website and online bookstores.
- Helen Osborne leads workshops about numeracy, "Multiplying Our Stratgies to Communicate Numbers."
For permission to include Health Literacy Consulting Tips in your organization's newsletter, please contact Helen Osborne by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at: 508-653-1199.