Health communication routes and methods

Why is effective communication important for good medical care?

Effective communication between individuals and professionals is of key importance for good medical care. Communication between users (and their social environment) on the one hand and professionals on the other hand is critical for building trust and relationships. It is served by simultaneous capacity building of both parties. Interaction is improved when all parties are equally capable to communicate and learn from each other. This involves openness of all parties to create space and time to listen to each other and share individual, social and cultural knowledge and expertise.

Especially older people are faced with a number of communication challenges due to normal changes of aging. These include declines in sensory abilities with losses in visual and auditory acuity read more here and here.

Effective health communication improves individuals’ capacity to follow through with given recommendations and to adopt preventive health behaviours. It also has a positive impact on individuals’ satisfaction with care. Several routes and methods of communication (e.g. direct, phone, electronic) are available and should be applied in a patient-oriented way.

How to decide on the right means of communication?

The first important step is to explore a person’s needs and preferences regarding communication. On this basis, professionals can then apply the best means of communication that respond to a person’s needs. Read more about this here


  • Older people might prefer to receive certain types of information (e.g. personal issues) in direct contact. For other types of information, like more general health promotion messages, mass media channels might be welcome.
  • Apply checklists or tools to explore people’s needs and to help professionals to communicate clearly, for instance this tool.

How to communicate effectively?

When communicating with older persons it is beneficial to apply various routes and methods of communication simultaneously (direct, phone, electronic).

  • Use innovative media for health communication (e.g. photonovels or photo stories, films, graphics, and drawings) and apply various types of follow-up to establish long-term relations.  Download PDF here
  • Adapt health messages to the culture and needs of the target population.
  • Formulate health information messages in a clear way, find a tool here.

An older adult: “I have difficulties with reading; these photo stories are much more effective than straight forward advice”.

Research of IROHLA showed that narrative forms of health communication can improve health literacy. Therefore we developed a series of photo stories together with older adults. These photo novels can support and empower people with low literacy in their doctor-patient communication. here you can find some portraits and here the making of these photo stories.

The aim is to make users aware of possible barriers in doctor-patient communication by portraying role models in recognisable and real-life step-by-step scenarios. This can help form behavioural intentions and communication strategies, decrease shame and increase older patients’ communication abilities.

We are still studying the effectiveness of these photo stories and want to study the applicability in other contexts, e.g. self-management for diabetes or psycho-social care for adolescents.

PR_photo stories_Brochure_fotostrips_EN_los_double dutch

How can interventions improve health communication?

IROHLA researchers identified 20 key interventions, which address the health literacy needs of the ageing population in Europe in different ways. These interventions can strengthen health literacy by increasing skills and knowledge of individuals, by providing easier solutions or simpler information, capacity building of professionals or reducing environmental barriers in healthcare settings.

The core component “communication” refers to interventions that target the interaction between health professionals and patients as they explicitly or implicitly try to achieve behavioural change of both parties.

For older adults enhancing communication refers to interventions that promote:

  • an active role in consultations by asking questions, providing information and disclosing concerns,
  • participation in shared decision making,
  • self-management of their health by finding and appraising information.

For professionals enhancing communication refers to interventions that address:

  • patient-centeredness (find more information here), including shared decision-making,
  • enhancing self-mangement of patients, as well as follow-up activities with repeated messages.

In healthcare, successful interventions educate both professionals and patients in communication strategies and improve knowledge and skills and empowerment of both parties. Look at the downloads on the left side of this article for more tools and background information.


Adili, F., Higgins, I., Koch, T. (2013) Older women and chronic illness: Transitioning and learning to live with diabetes. Action Research 2013 11(2): 142–156. DOI: 10.1177/1476750313477157

Bonevski, B., Randell, M., Paul, C., Chapman, K., Twyman, L., Bryant, J., Brozek, I., Hughes, C. (2014). Reaching the hard-to reach: a systematic review of strategies for improving health and medical research with socially disadvantaged groups. BMC Medical Research Methodology 2014 (14) 42

Koops van ‘t Jagt; Hoeks; Jansen; de Winter; Reijneveld (in press), Comprehensibility of Health Related Documents for Older Adults with Different Levels of Health Literacy: A Systematic Review. Journal of Health Communication.