Visual Communication Can Bridge the Health Literacy Gap

Visual Communication Can Bridge the Health Literacy GapLow health literacy–that is, people who have difficulty understanding or following medical instructions, including things like using the healthcare system and correctly dosing medications–leads to all sorts of undesirable outcomes. It makes sense that people with higher health literacy will be more successful at taking care of themselves. In the meantime, it’s important to find ways to communicate more effectively with people who struggle with health literacy.

One simple way to do that is by using more images and visuals in health communications. Not only do images make a communications piece more eye-catching and attractive, they can actually facilitate comprehension of the content for audiences of varying health literacy levels–so much so that use of visuals is a strategy recommended by the CDC for health communications.

Even aside from issues of health literacy, some people who are visual learners may benefit from having information communicated through images or graphics.

There are at least two ways to make health information easier to understand with visuals: Put the information directly into the visual, or choose visuals that add context and clarity to words.

Presenting information visually

Visuals can be used as a substitute for verbal communication. A common example of this is the infographic, which translates data into images. Infographics can be effective because they allow people to digest data much more quickly than reading does.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Michigan Center for Health Communications Research (CHCR) have teamed up for Visualizing Health, a project creating research-based guidelines for how to present health data visually. This site has templates available for adaptation in your health communications, as well as information about how to make your home-grown infographics more effective.

Speaking of home-grown infographics– is a newish website that allows you to create your own data visuals.

Someone thoughtfully added a small illustration of flushing to help make this sign more meaningful!
Someone thoughtfully added a small illustration of flushing to help make this sign more meaningful!

Another way to use visuals to communicate health information is to create simplified illustration of physiological issues. An elderly man with heart problems begins to understand what’s wrong when his doctor sketches a heart and colors in the arteries that are blocked. Patients readying for surgery learn about the details of their procedure by watching one of Emmi Solutions‘ narrated animated videos describing what to expect. In both of these cases, a visual representation of the physical creates an understanding that a verbal explanation cannot.

Pairing images with words

This paragraph could not be more relevant and memorable to me!
This paragraph could not be more relevant and memorable to me!

In my company’s web-based coaching programs, we choose images to go alongside the content that show people who are demographically similar to the user. This is because of research from the University of Michigan Center for Health Communications Research  that shows that pairing “similar to me” pictures with text makes the text more likely to be read and remembered.

There is also a wealth of research from marketing science that shows you can increase a message’s appeal and relevance by selecting the right imagery to accompany it. One theory holds that aspirational images, pictures that show people who are more beautiful or successful than the average, will grab attention. Another posits that people want to see models like themselves (similar to the work from CHCR).

Not a perfect solution.

Even though visuals can make information easier to understand, they also introduce other issues. Information that’s displayed in an infographic or other visual may be impossible to translate to another language by machine. Images may carry cultural meanings for different audiences that were not what the creator intended (for example, if a color prominently used in the image is associated with death or illness in a particular culture).

This graph might be better at communicating my study results than a verbal description, but it still has some ways to go.

It’s also important to remember that just because something is visual doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand. We’ve all had the experience of struggling to parse a poorly organized chart or make sense of a sprawling infographic. General tenets of good communication, such as limiting jargon, using simple sentence construction, and emphasizing key points, should be carried forward into visuals too.