Improving communication with consumers

Did you know that people forget between 40 to 80% of health information they are told, almost immediately?

Communicating effectively can improve understanding and recall of important information.

Effective communication strategies can help in clinical and non-clinical interactions such as scheduling appointments, explaining a bill, or giving directions.

Find a summary of communication principles in our Health Literacy Handbook

On this page:

How to improve communication

  • Greet people using your service with a warm smile and a welcoming attitude.
  • Keep your body language positive and meet people on their level, e.g. sit down if they are sitting.
  • Provide phone operators with plain language scripts and answers to frequently asked questions about the service.
  • Some people will have more understanding of topics than others, depending on their life and past experiences. Their capacity to take in new information can also be affected by their health or situation.
  • Ask what people already know before giving them new information. This allows you to tailor information to that person’s existing knowledge.
  • Use a technique like ‘Ask-Tell-Ask’ help you do this:
    • Ask – Use an open ended question to ask someone about their health or what they know about a topic.
    • Tell – Tailor the information you give them to their existing knowledge and how much information they need at this time.
    • Ask – Check their understanding of information you’ve discussed using Teach-back.
  • Prioritise what needs to be discussed.
  • Limit information to 3-5 key points.
  • Put the most important points first.
  • Break up complex information into understandable ‘chunks’ (Chunk and Check).
  • Use plain language instead of jargon and acronyms. Be guided by the words the consumer is using about their condition. There are many plain language guides to help you. 
  • Speak clearly and at a moderate pace. Pause after key messages.
  • Teach-back is a way to confirm that people have understood something by asking them to explain it back to you in their own words. It’s a way of checking that you (as a health professional) have explained things clearly. If someone cannot teach-back correctly, you need to explain the information again in a different way.
  • Use teach-back after each ‘chunk’ of information or key message.
  • Do the free online Teach-Back training.
  • An accredited interpreter should be used when:
    • a person, carer or family member requests an interpreter
    • a staff member cannot understand the information being conveyed by a person, carer or family member
    • a person, carer or family member does not fully understand what is being said because of difficulty in communicating in English.
  • Family members or carers are not a good alternative to an accredited interpreter.

See the Translating and Interpreting Service website for more information.

  • Use visuals (pictures, graphs, maps, charts, 3D models), demonstrations, and gestures to support spoken information.
  • Do not assume people will read information you give to them. Use written materials to support the messages conveyed in your spoken instructions.
  • Tailor visual information to the person, e.g. write notes, draw diagrams to help people remember information later. Offer pen and paper for people to write their own notes.
  • Use open-ended questions such as “What questions do you have?”, rather than ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions like “Do you have any questions?”
  • Many people will not ask questions unless prompted.
  • Actively listen to people’s concerns and their priorities and find out why these are important for that person.
  • Ask people for permission to ask them questions. e.g. “you said…. I’d like to ask you a bit more about that, is that ok?”

Take a Health Literacy Universal Precautions approach to communication. This means recognising that it is not possible to know a person’s level of individual health literacy by looking at them. We should assume that there will be barriers to understanding and to reduce the complexity of information and services for all health consumers.

Using health literacy strategies, like plain language, helps everyone better understand their health, regardless of what health literacy level they may have. Strategies like Teach-back to check for prior knowledge or understanding, and asking people how they like to communicate and learn, allow us to tailor information to an individual.

Health Literacy Universal Precautions are a way to:

  • simplify communication and confirm understanding for all people
  • make the health care system easier to navigate
  • support people’s efforts to improve their health.

Read more about communicating numbers & risks.

Communicating with people with different communication needs

Some advice is summarised below, but for more detail head to People with additional communication needs (Tasmanian Department of Health)

For those hard-of-hearing:

  • get their attention before speaking
  • check hearing aids are turned on
  • face them so they can see your lips moving. You may need to remove a mask
  • speak slowly and clearly
  • speak loudly but don’t shout
  • move to a quiet location.

For people who are deaf:

  • For people who are blind or have very low vision, you could audio-record health information or make a voice recording on their smart phone.
  • If providing written information to people with partial vision or who use screen-readers, you may need to format documents differently. The Tasmanian Department of Health has some great advice on this.

Always use an accredited interpreter if speaking to someone not fluent in English (see the Translating and Interpreting Service website).

If providing written information:

Communicating using telehealth

  • Non-verbal communication (e.g. body language) is missing when we use the phone to communicate. Be extra careful with words you use.
  • All of the same principles on this page also apply – speak slowly and clearly, check for understanding, use plain language, use friendly and welcoming language.

Watch Carla White and Susan Reid, Directors Health Literacy NZ, on ‘Getting the most from Telehealth’.

Many of their tips are about reducing distractions that can take people’s attention away from the conversation and mean they are less likely to take in information.

  • Acknowledge people using the new technology. Have a clear understanding of what telehealth involves from the patient end so you can talk people though this in plain language.
  • Offer a practice session for people worried about technology.
  • Share information beforehand that can help make the appointment a success e.g. Preparing for a virtual appointment (
  • Spend longer at the start building rapport. This can help if people feel uneasy about or unfamiliar with telehealth.
  • Suggest a method of recording important messages, like a pen and paper.
  • Offer to include family or caregivers virtually.
  • Help people to not be distracted by self-view. Offer advice on how to hide self-view so people don’t get distracted or are not tempted to turn off their camera.
  • Use body language and facial expressions to give (quiet) feedback. Those little sounds we make to let people know we’re listening don’t work so well over video. Use body language instead to show you are engaged.
  • Demonstrate attention through eye contact. Make sure you are face on to your screen and if you need to turn away, explain what is happening. The person on the other end can only see your head and chest; they don’t know what else you may be doing.

Developing and delivering
presentations and education sessions


JargonPlain Language
Pre-opBefore surgery
ECGElectrical picture of your heart
PRNWhen needed
SupineOn back
Discharge planningMaking a plan to get out of hospital
FastDo not eat during this time
SatsOxygen in blood
PathologySomething is not working right
Verbal comprehensionUnderstanding what other people are saying
FebrileHigh temperature
GaitWalking pattern
BilateralBoth sides
AbstainDon’t do
UF goalHow much fluid we want to take off
Primary health assessmentHealth check with GP
ProphylacticTo prevent
QID4 times a day
PivotChanging from an old strategy
AF(atrial fibrillation) Heart flutter/irregular heart rate
Nil by mouthNothing to eat or drink
Upper limbsArms
DyspnoeaShortness of breath
AnalgesiaPain relief

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