Is Your Association’s Site Too Hard to Read?

A recent study found that content on many medical association websites is above the audiences' reading level. How can you ensure your writing doesn't confuse readers?

When a user trips onto your site, do they find clarity or gobbledygook?

For medical associations in particular, that could be a significant question, according to a new study that suggests online materials geared toward patients can prove difficult to read.

“Patients will often come to the office, and one of the first things they say to you, especially about technical information, they’ll say that they’ve been on the Internet, and they’ll quote one or two key phrases back to you,” study author Dr. Charles Prestigiacomo of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey told Reuters. “Unfortunately, the little sound bites, while accurate, may not be complete.”

More details:

The findings: “A Comparative Analysis of the Quality of Patient Education Materials From Medical Specialties,” published in Monday’s JAMA Internal Medicine, explains that medical experts may be talking above the heads of their audience by using technical language. A number of sites, including those of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Society of Anesthesiologists, contain educational material ranking at a ninth-grade  reading level or above, despite the American Medical Association recommendation to aim for a sixth-grade level or below.

A cloud of SMOG: One of the tools  Prestigiacomo and his fellow researchers used to determine these language issues was the “simple measure of gobbledygook” (SMOG) grading scale, which measures readability. Easy readability is key, particularly for health messages, because their complexity can prove a burden for members of the general public who need the information. In a 2010 study on information related to Parkinson’s disease, British researchers writing in the Royal College Physicians of Edinburgh [PDF] found SMOG  more effective at grading information than the better-known Flesch-Kincaid scale. They wrote that web developers should “consider routine monitoring of content readability with SMOG to increase the accessibility and ease of comprehension of online consumer-orientated healthcare information.”

Other linguistic issues: The study also calls out some medical sites for the high usage of cliches, especially in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology. (But, conversely, Prestigiacomo notes that analogies may help to better explain some complex medical issues.) Passive language is also a big no-no, with fellow study author Nitin Agarwal telling the wire service that it’s important to keep in mind the audience such information targets. “Concise and to the point is the way to go for this sort of stuff,” he noted.

Beyond medical associations  this is a clear issue for associations at large, including those that interact closely with consumers, to keep in mind. Sometimes the topics we write about focus on the intricacies of our industries, when what the audience really wants is a breath of fresh air.

What approach have you taken to ensure your resources are easy to read for their intended audiences? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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