Talking about health literacy with the Cancer Society

I had a conversation about health literacy with Sarah Stacy-Baynes. Sarah is the Information Manager at the Cancer Society of New Zealand. She heads an editorial team that meets regularly to make sure that all the Cancer Society’s information is easy to use.

Identify your reader community first

Sarah’s reading about health literacy encouraged her to put the Cancer Society’s readers first when they were planning a new booklet or project. The editorial team now begins each project by identifying their readers and consumers.

Sarah says that the secret behind clear communication is to write the Society’s information from the point of view of people with cancer. Identifying readers from the very beginning of a project provides the process for networking into a community. As the team’s writers develop relationships in a Cancer Society community, the Society’s information becomes the community’s information. And working closely with the people who will use the information enables the Society to cross cultures. ‘Simple and effective’ describes the way they work, Sarah says.

Talk to your reader community before writing

The Society is often asked to go to an event and put up a tent and a sign. However, people are fearful of the word ‘Cancer’, even in the Society’s name. The Society prefers to take part in a community event by sitting with people and talk about health during conversation. The editorial team asks, rather than tells, people what information to include—they ask questions like ‘What do you need to know?’ and ‘How would you like us to deliver your information?’

Make your information accessible to the people who will use it

Having health literacy means that you can use the information you read and hear to benefit your health or your family’s health. The Cancer Society team knows that people with cancer are vulnerable and unwell and can’t take in too much information at one time. So they try to give readers only what they need. They know too that their information is only useful and valuable if the information answers readers’ questions, and if everyone who needs it can access it and act on it.

Sarah says that health writers have to be brave; they have to move out of their own (safe) community, be there at the beginning with the community that will use the information, and have the utmost respect for them; then to trust what they say they need and go with it.

The point of any Cancer Society project is to provide information that works for its readers and helps fulfil the Society’s purpose.

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One response to “Talking about health literacy with the Cancer Society”

  1. People’s need for information varies so much. When a dear friend was diagnosed with the most malignant type of brain tumour, I wanted to read all about it. But she didn’t. She just wanted doctors to tell her what she needed to know — but she greatly values the support of the Cancer Society’s group meetings, where she can meet others who are terminally ill. What a wonderful job they all do!

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