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What’s Gobbledygook Got to Do with Healthcare?

There are fewer opportunities as adults to use seemingly made-up words. But today I bring you information on none other than…Gobbledygook. Simple Measure of Gobbledygook, or SMOG, is a measure of readability that estimates the years of education needed to understand the written material. You’ve likely seen this referenced as a 5th or 6th grade reading level, for example.

We have G Harry McLaughlin to thank for Gobbedlygook. He created the SMOG Readability Formula in 1969 and published an article about it in the Journal of Reading. McLaughlin started his career as a sub-editor of the Mirror newspaper but left to pursue a doctorate in psycholinguistics at the University of London. He taught human communications at City University of London, before moving to Toronto, where he taught briefly at York University. He then went on to the University of Syracuse, where he published his SMOG Formula in 1969.

McLaughlin’s formula to calculate a text’s readability is as follows:

  1. Count the words of three or more syllables in three 10-sentence samples,
  2. Then estimate the count’s square root (from the nearest perfect square), and
  3. Add three.

SMOG is a common mechanism used to ensure messages — particularly those in a health context — are sufficiently readable. Preferably, healthcare manuals should be written at a 5th or 6th grade reading level. Studies have shown that the majority of Americans read at those levels. A wider reader audience allows for greater consumption of education materials, treatment plans, and more.

Here are a few of the benefits of using readability formulas in the healthcare industry:

  1. Healthcare Employees. Readability formulas ensure healthcare employees can read and understand documentation and instruction manuals of medical equipment, such as X-ray machines, ultrasound machines, dental chairs, etc. An appropriate readability level ensures proper installation and usage of equipment by employees.
  2. Patient Education and Awareness. Patients need to understand their conditions, prescribed drugs (including risks and side effects), clinical tests, when to contact their doctors, when to seek immediate medical attention, etc. All of this is accomplished by communicating with patients through written documentation, verbal instructions, multimedia, etc. Many patients require written instructions for long-term reference. Using readability formulas can help health care providers prepare documentation that patients can read and understand at their respective reading-levels.
  3. Low Literacy Skills Affect Patients in Other Ways. Studies show that adults with low literacy skills:
    1. Have a poorer health status,
    2. Experience health costs on average six times higher,
    3. Have more trouble sticking to medication schedules, and
    4. Don’t understand their illnesses as well as those with higher-level literacy skills.
  4. Disease Management. It is imperative to have clear doctor-patient-pharmacist communication in order to manage disease effectively. If patients cannot understand the steps they need to take to manage their illnesses because the text is beyond their reading abilities, it is unlikely the patient will follow them. Likewise, if the pharmacist cannot understand the doctor’s prescription, there’s a possibility that wrong medication could be issued to the patient. Readability formulas help healthcare professionals avoid unnecessary confusion.

ISI can help you keep your treatment plans, patient education materials, letters and other healthcare related documents at an appropriate reading level even as we translate them into other languages for you. Let our team of linguists assist you with readability on your next translation project. For more information or to request a quote, contact ISI at



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