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Universal precautions for health communication

Health care professionals should practice “universal precautions” when communicating with others.14

  • This means communicating clearly and in plain language with all patients.
  • This is better than trying to identify and communicate differently with patients who have low health literacy.
  • Since only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills, universal precautions are a safe bet.


At first, it can be challenging to practice universal precautions.

  • Health care information is scientific.
  • Health care professionals have many years of formal education.
  • They have learned to think about and talk about health and disease in a certain way.
  • Changing this can take effort and practice!


Some health care professionals are reluctant to use plain language when communicating with patients. They may worry that

  • They are "dumbing down" the information.
  • Patients will feel insulted by their "plain talk."
  • They won’t appear knowledgeable about the subject.


These concerns are not warranted.

  • Patients prefer simple, straightforward communication.
  • Clear health communication helps patients of all levels of education and health literacy learn more about their health.


  • Nurs Outlook. 2011;59(2):85-94.