This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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20 April 2011

Reading and writing for health

People looking for health information have to decide where to get their information from. Health information is everywhere—in advertising, magazines, television dramas, in brochures in the GP’s waiting room and fact sheets at the pharmacy, and on the internet. But it’s not all easy to read.

Health literacy – using health information
Using health information requires more than just the ability to read and understand the words. People who study literacy use the term ‘health literacy’ to describe a person’s ability to read, understand, and then use health information. It takes a complex set of skills to use health information to make decisions about your own or your family’s health.

International surveys show that poor health literacy costs us millions of dollars every year.
When people do not understand written information, they cannot use it to manage their health well.

Ask three key questions
Everybody benefits from health information written simply. One of the best tips I’ve seen for writing or giving health information is called ‘Ask Me 3’. These are three questions a patient should ask in every conversation about their health. Health professionals can use them to give health information. The questions are:
  • What is my problem?
  • What do I need to do?
  • Why is it important for me to do this?

Use the right words, simply
Writers can use Ask Me 3 to plan what they write. Here at Write, we’re preparing an ebook of plain English alternatives for medical words. Words like jaundice, nutrients, pneumonia, neonatal, intravenous, postoperative, and angina are used in daily life. However, you can’t assume that your readers understand medical words.

You may want to continue to use a particular medical term. You don’t have to replace a difficult word in order to write simply. Plain English is about writing clearly, so explain the word(s) the first time you use them and use them in short sentences.

Visit the New Zealand health literacy website
Read more about Ask Me 3


  1. I like the three questions idea... could be used elsewhere?
    Ask Me 3 for mothers of teenagers:
    - What have you lost?
    - Why do you think I might know where it is?
    - Would cleaning your room help you find it?

  2. Great to have the guts of what to ask the doc/nurse/A & E etc in 3 simple questions - thanks!