A Plea for Plain Language

Tara Smith, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health.

Tara Smith, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health.

Be honest. When was the last time you discussed the rising tide of antibiotic-resistant disease, say over coffee at work or over dinner at home?

You know, the issue the World Health Organization says is “a global health crisis … [where] interventions, like organ transplantation, joint replacement, cancer chemotherapy, and care of preterm infants, will become more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake.”

Here’s the thing: It’s not so much that we don’t discuss it – it’s that we can’t discuss it – because we don’t really know what antibiotic resistance means.

That’s what a survey of over 10,000 people conducted by the World Health Organization told us just two years ago: Up to 75% of the people were found to be “confused about this major threat to public health and do not understand how to prevent it from growing.”

So is there a way to engage the public in a conversation about a critical health issue that the majority of us are “confused” about?

Kent State’s Dr. Tara Smith did something refreshingly unique with a paper she published last month – in an open access journal – about the unexpected prevalence of MRSA on public beaches in Ohio. She added this:

Plain Language Summary

Previous studies have examined the presence of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus on marine beaches, but a rigorous study of freshwater beaches was lacking. We investigated S. aureus presence and proximity to wastewater treatment plants on 10 beaches in Northeast Ohio. We found S. aureus in 22.8% of our samples (64/280). Prevalence was higher in summer than fall. Prevalence was also higher in sites with wastewater treatment plants close to the beaches.

 

Plain Language/Plain English summaries are making their way into legal reporting too. For instance, the preeminent website for the U.S. Supreme Court is SCOTUSblog. One of its attractions is its Plain English/Cases Made Simple feature. It’s by no means law for dummies: it’s legally reasoned analysis of important cases before the court – without the jargon. For example, in “Wedding Cakes v. Religious Beliefs?: In Plain English,” you’ll find their breakdown of the pending and highly important “cake case” which asks the question, Can a maker of wedding cakes refuse service to a gay couple because of his religious belief that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples?

A few years ago in front of a live audience at the Harvard School of Public Health, Stuart Levy, MD, a pioneer in the field of antibiotic-resistant infections, made a rather bold statement. He said that if he had $800,000 to spend on fighting infectious disease, he’d spend $700,000 of it on educating the community because “They need to be a partner in using antibiotics properly.” A co-panelist agreed, saying “We’re all in this together.”

We’re all in this together but unfortunately we’re not all on board. So maybe the thinking of Dr. Levy, and the examples of Dr. Smith and and the U.S. Supreme Court reporters publishing plain language summaries, are worth a serious look.

Because with the ever-increasing presence of genetics (what is the difference between a gene, DNA, and a chromosome?) in science and medicine, this issue will only become more important over time.

 

 

 

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