Digital transformation in the Health sector

In the current context of digital transformation, communication has been increasing and affecting every area of activity, including the health sector. Even though this transformation had already been underway, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak we have been going through the largest mass information sharing movement ever. The need to keep abreast of the constant flood of information about the pandemic, understand it and share it almost immediately, following the rhythm of the minute-by-minute news updates, has been challenging for everyone.

Information on health is very varied, and can be produced by research centres, companies in the health sector, in the scope of the activities performed by these professionals (hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, etc.), by regulatory institutions (WHO, General Directorate for Health), by the so-called final recipients who are the patients and their relatives, by the media or by the general public, forming an ecosystem that intertwines health and digital media (Guedelha, 2018).

The experience of the COVID-19 outbreak showed us that sharing information does not necessarily imply sharing good information. Also, sharing good information does not necessarily entail sharing knowledge.

Both information and knowledge are pivotal elements in the ongoing digital transformation. These elements will undoubtedly be more successful when all the stakeholders collaborate, sharing efforts and synergies, without forgetting that this digital transformation is not only technological, but also cultural, encompassing the whole of society. Education is therefore a cornerstone of this transformation process.

The Digital and Collaborative Education Approach

The process that allows citizens to be much more active regarding their health is supported by education and health literacy. The Final Report of the Technical Group for Health System Information states that ‘the awareness of the importance of this issue emerges as soon as it becomes clear that the level of literacy of the individuals is a factor that decisively determines their ability to make rational and sound decisions about their own health. It affects (…) the quality of life of individuals and of those who depend on them (…), but it can also have an impact on the costs and the way health systems are organised’ (Ribeiro et al., 2015). 

This same report also presents some studies that confirm the relationship between limited literacy and low education, its association with situations of poverty and social exclusion, and the negative correlation between literacy and age, the latter being of particular relevance in the face of the increasingly aged population of Portugal.

Towards the advancement of digital education already underway, the concept of health literacy has evolved in line with the individual capacity to respond to the growing demands of health in modern society (Sørensen et al., 2012). A particular emphasis is put on adaptability and collaboration processes involving the different stakeholders in the field of health. The success of this trajectory largely depends on the degree of digital literacy involved in the actual development of technological solutions. It is therefore imperative that we create the conditions for this knowledge to reach health professionals and patients.

A formula based on plain language and appropriate terminology

Plain language is the simple and direct expression of information that one intends to communicate, either by building on existing texts and adapting their technical language to the average citizen, or by producing texts that are originally conceived in plain language, aiming at a greater understanding by the target audience. ‘A communication is in plain language if wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information’ International Plain Language Federation

The criteria used to write in plain language may apply to any language and to any area of knowledge. Thus, these criteria are usually quite general, albeit without overlooking the existence of linguistic phenomena that are specific to each language and may also be relevant.

At Value for Health Colab we are currently collecting, systematising and classifying the most frequent linguistic criteria to communicate in plain language, with greater emphasis on the adaptation and production of texts/messages written in European Portuguese (VOH.Colab Health Literacy Handbook [in progress]). This methodology is being further enhanced with the addition of other criteria aimed at popularising the technical and scientific language used in health care, particularly in the field of value-based health care by creating a terminology resource ― VOH.Term, which is a database of concepts that will contribute to improving future communication in this area of knowledge.

— About the author —

As Head of Health Literacy, Raquel explores methodologies in Linguistics and Terminology, and develops tailored contents for Health Literacy and Communication with patients, health professionals, caregivers, health managers and other groups involved in the provision of Healthcare. 


Guedelha, D. (2018), Pharmaceutical Cluster in Portugal and Michael Porter Diamond Theory. Lisboa: Deloitte.

Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). Federal Plain Language Guidelines, March 2011, Revision 1, USA; May 2011. 

Ribeiro, & al., (2015), Iniciativa para a Informação Centrada no Utente do Sistema de Saúde. Grupo Técnico para a Informação no Sistema de Saúde. Governo de Portugal, Ministério da Saúde.

Sørensen, K.; Van den Broucke, S.; Fullam, J.; Doyle, G.; Pelikan, J.; Slonska, Z.; Brand, H. (2012),  Health literacy and public health: A systematic review and integration of definitions and models. BMC Public Health.