Medicalese in Digital Health – An Accessibility Issue


Over 77 million Americans have difficulty accessing healthcare services and obtaining quality care due to low levels of health literacy, according to a recent national study.

When language and terminology used in healthcare is hard to understand, it can build a barrier for patients to access the care they need. Any comprehension gap can make it difficult for patients to accurately convey their symptoms and health concerns, and harder for healthcare professionals to effectively offer the right advice and deliver appropriate care.

Leveraging technology, such as artificial intelligence, can help bridge this gap by simplifying the patient experience. Translating complex medical knowledge, and making it available to patients in a simple and easy-to-use way, can make healthcare accessible to those that otherwise may have difficulty.

Accessibility – literacy and reading age

Healthcare providers treat people of all backgrounds and ages, often during a period of distress. Therefore, it is essential to consider the health literacy of patients during consultations to make sure the message is heard and understood. Failure to communicate in an empathetic and understandable way risks exacerbating stress during what could already be an overwhelming situation, and at worse could lead to further health complications as a result of not understanding how to access the right care and the importance of completing the suggested course of action.

Literacy levels are a very real challenge for people trying to navigate healthcare systems. The average reading level in the US is grade 6 to 8 (10-13 years old) with 45 million Americans being functionally illiterate. This literacy gap is most stark among older generations, with just 3% over-65s deemed to be “proficient” to navigate healthcare systems, at a point in life when people typically are most in need.

In consultations, providers are caught between the complex, “medicalese” terms for symptoms and conditions used by professionals, and the more relatable language used by patients. Physicians, on average, spend a decade in training to give them the knowledge and skills to treat people, so it’s clear that patients will commonly have a different level of understanding. In recent years we have seen new efforts to encourage the adoption of readability tools and lower the reading age of patient materials to 9-11 years, which is a good first step.

Healthtech companies also have a role to play. By implementing features that simplify the user experience, importantly reducing the number of actions a user needs to take to reach the desired outcome, and by avoiding jargon and providing explanations of complex terms within their app or platform, they can help improve health literacy and access to care. However, designing features that aid accessibility cannot come at the cost of safety and medical quality.

Crossing language barriers 

Reading levels and confusing medical terms are not the only communication barriers that exist in healthcare. 67% of patients with limited English skills reported language as a barrier to accessing care in the US. There is also clear evidence that introducing translation tools improves both the quality of care delivered and satisfaction with the outcome for both patients and physicians.

By offering assessments in multiple languages, health tech can allow users to communicate symptoms to healthcare providers whether or not they are fluent English speakers. Technology can then allow medical grade assessments to be conducted in a different language — say Spanish where while patients can explain their symptoms in familiar terms and language — which are then translated and delivered to the clinician in English.

As access to the internet and mobile technology improves in remote and rural locations, health systems can implement diverse range of languages by leveraging technology. This can play a key role in reaching global health development goals.

To help patients in communities of historically low literacy, such as rural or older communities in the US, access appropriate medical services, healthtech solutions must consider local nuance. Further, they need to have translation and quality checking undertaken by experienced native speaking physicians, and present all content at an accessible reading age level, regardless of the language.

Facilitating doctor-patient communication 

Technology solutions must open up the line of communication between doctors and patients. They must make it as straightforward as possible while also tackling accessibility from a literacy perspective. The doctor-patient relationship is the foundation of effective healthcare and, unfortunately, many of the issues that arise in healthcare are a result of miscommunication between these parties.

If a patient has a condition that they consider to be embarrassing, they might not feel comfortable communicating all of their symptoms to their physician or might find it difficult to convey those symptoms effectively – making a complete diagnosis more difficult. That said, the ability to accurately diagnose a condition is only half the equation as the details and implications of the diagnosis also need to be effectively communicated and understood.

A symptom assessment platform can, for example, serve as a more efficient first line of communication. Patients often feel more comfortable providing comprehensive, personal information to a digital platform rather than to another human being as it removes the stigma of being judged when talking about potentially embarrassing medical issues. Patients can record responses on a platform in real time, and those can then be presented in an easy to read report to the patient, that can allow them to share another with their physician who uses more expert clinical language. The reports can include likely conditions and their probability, a clear history of factors used to reach those outcomes, and more information on the conditions. This helps facilitate a seamless experience without adding further complication on either side, and provides a solid starting point for the diagnostic journey.


Healthcare depends upon clear communication, often on complex issues using very specific terms. Healthcare systems and providers are beholden to improving access to care and utilizing every means available including health tech.

In that context, health tech companies must take steps to ensure that their services are not only medically accurate but also place an emphasis on improving the user experience and maximizing accessibility in order to cater to individual needs. In doing so, there is huge potential for health tech to improve access and health equity for all, including marginalized groups.

Photo: sdecoret, Getty Images

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