Health Literacy


How Merck is helping to make medical information easier to understand.

Which is easier to read. Something that looks like this or this? What if we were designing this article in this color instead of basic black? And instead of writing, “Is this easy to understand?” We write, “Can you discern this in an uncomplicated, manageable method?”

If you would prefer this article to be clearly written and cleanly designed, you would be a fan of health literacy.

For the uninitiated, health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Using the tenants of health literacy, Merck is working to help make sure that the information our company puts out into the world is very clear.

Merck’s commitment to improving health literacy

Meet Laurie Myers
Laurie Myers is the director of Global Health Literacy at Merck.

“According to health literacy tests, I have a high degree of health literacy,” she says. “And yet, I often have struggled to use health information.”

Laurie tells this story to illustrate her point: “My daughter had surgery to remove a birth mark on her leg. They told me to limit her activity. ‘Limit activity’ is very simple language. My kids play a lot of sports. So to me, ‘limit activity,’ meant, ‘don’t go to soccer practice.’ It didn’t mean ‘sit on the sofa and put your leg up.’ So, poor thing, I walked her around a children’s museum the next day and her leg started to bleed. She needed another surgery.”

Laurie notes that it wasn’t the fault of the doctor or the hospital – there was just a disconnect between the recipient and the communicator.

Making a more customer-centric process

Laurie’s first foray into health literacy was creating a new standard for developing patient labels for new molecules. This involved a partnership with health literacy leaders at Northwestern and Emory, patient feedback during label development, and getting the FDA on board. This year, Merck launched our first two health literate patient labels.

A patient label is the information that is developed by a pharmaceutical company and is approved by the FDA for a particular medicine; it’s the document that is the basis for what we say to patients about that specific medicine moving forward in all of our communications. (One place people see this is in magazine ads for a product. When you turn the page and see all of the information at the back? That all comes from the patient label.)

Next up for Laurie and her team are incorporating health literacy principles into other areas of the business, including packaging and clinical trials, as noted below in bullet points (a helpful design principle in health literacy):

It’s important that we develop packaging that helps patients better understand how to take their medicines.

Health literacy is important for people to understand clinical trials. Matching content to the audience and modifying language to improve comprehension can improve trust.

Laurie notes that we are leading the industry in terms of health literacy but there are still great strides we — and the pharmaceutical industry — need to do to help a person’s ability to better understand, act on, and use health information.

I want us to lead the conversation and help show the way for others to do the same,” she says. “Clear communication must be part of the care…and the cure.