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Health Care Has a Language All Its Own. Here’s a Tool That Helps You Learn to Speak It.

A lot of people try to do things like learn a new word every day to improve their vocabulary. However, they often neglect their health care vocabulary. That’s too bad, because how well someone speaks the language of health care can affect their health.


A person’s ability to understand information about their health care and health insurance coverage is often referred to as their level of health literacy. One important aspect of this literacy is understanding the complicated language of health care and health benefits. This is crucial to making well-informed health care decisions.

“Low health literacy is not a permanent trait,” said Steven Rush, director of UnitedHealth Group’s Health Literacy Innovations Program. “It is a state that can be changed through education.”

However, just because someone is well educated doesn’t mean they have a high level of health literacy. In fact, health literacy depends upon many different factors. For example, a person may have no problem understanding their doctor when they are feeling well. But if they are sick, tired or stressed, it may be difficult for them to understand what their doctor is saying.

Fortunately, there are some simple tools available that can help boost health literacy, no matter the situation.

One of the things Rush’s team has developed to help people improve their health literacy is the Just Plain Clear Glossary. This searchable online glossary contains common health care and health insurance terms in clear, plain language.

“These days people are being asked to make more of their own decisions about their health care, so they need a better understanding of some pretty complex words and concepts,” Rush said. “Initially we didn’t have a good resource to define complicated medical or insurance terms in plain language. So that’s why we developed our Glossary.”

Studies show poor health literacy can negatively affect both a patient’s well-being and pocketbook. Patients with low health literacy are more likely to suffer from conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They are less likely to benefit from the treatment they receive for health problems. When they are admitted to the hospital, people with lower health literacy are more likely to have longer stays, and they are more likely to be readmitted after they are discharged.

Low health literacy also costs our economy, as much as $238 billion annually by some estimates. People can make poor decisions when they can’t understand things like how often they need to take their medication or how much they are responsible for paying at a doctors’ visit. These poor decisions can cost them, and all of us, more money.

When the Just Plain Clear Glossary launched in 2013, it contained about 2,500 commonly used medical and insurance terms in both English and Spanish. Today, it contains over 12,000 terms defined in easy to understand language, and each term now includes a definition in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

“The Just Plain Clear Glossary breaks down barriers and is enhancing communication between health care professionals and patients,” Rush said. He noted that some health care professionals have used it to explain certain concepts to their patients. Patients have shared that the Glossary makes it easier to understand things their health care providers tell them.

Perhaps most importantly, unlike some online resources, the Just Plain Clear Glossary serves as a trusted source of information. Volunteers who work in various capacities for UnitedHealth Group are specially trained to write in plain language and submit entries to the glossary. Entries are then reviewed for accuracy by appropriate experts like physicians, nurses, psychologists, attorneys, dentists, pharmacists and others before being posted online.

When asked why someone would volunteer to contribute to the Glossary, Rush pointed out that people work in the health care industry because they want others to live the healthiest lives possible. Improving health literacy is an important part of empowering people to live a healthier life.

“You know the warm fuzzy feeling you might get explaining something to a loved one so they can live their life better?” he asked. “A lot of us get that same feeling doing things that help improve health literacy.”

Are you interested in browsing the Just Plain Clear Glossary or searching for a specific term? Go here.