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Content style guide

Health content

Health content should be accurate, accessible, and actionable to help Veterans make decisions about their health and health care benefits. In VA health content, we avoid overly clinical language and write in a person-to-person, empathetic, and conversational voice.

Use plain language alternatives for medical terms—or explain terms in context

Use a plain language approach instead of medical jargon. If Veterans need to know a specific medical term that a health care provider may use, include the term and explain it in context with plain language.

Use everyday words when you can


  • Use “high blood pressure,” not “hypertension”
  • Use “cancer-causing,” not “carcinogenic”

Explain need-to-know jargon in context


  • For some conditions, we automatically assume (or “presume”) that your service caused your condition. We call these “presumptive conditions.”
  • A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a sudden jolt to your head that changes the way your brain works. The jolt could be caused by a blow to your head, a blast, or an object like a bullet or fragment entering your brain.

Find common VA jargon and language alternatives in our word list

Find plain language alternatives to medical jargon on the CDC website

Put the person before their condition—but respect identity-first language when a community prefers it

Use words like “Veteran” or “person” instead of “patient”

This helps to make it clear that a person is not defined by their illnesses, disabilities, or status as a patient.

Use person-first language when writing about defined diseases, mental health conditions, or substance use.


  • Use “Veteran with cancer,” not “cancer patient”
  • Use “Veteran with diabetes,” not “diabetic Veteran”
  • Use “Veteran with higher body weight,” not “obese Veteran”
  • Use “Veteran with bipolar disorder,” not “bipolar Veteran”
  • Use “Veteran with a substance use disorder,” not “addict”

Respect the preferences of individual communities for identity-first language

Some communities, in particular, prefer language that honors the way they interact with the world as an important part of their identity. You can also shift between identity-first and person-first language to honor the fact that different communities and individuals have different preferences.


  • Use both “blind Veterans” and “Veterans who are blind.” “Veterans with vision loss” or “Veterans with low vision” are also appropriate in some contexts.
  • Use both “Deaf Veterans” and “Veterans who are deaf.” “Veterans with hearing loss” is also appropriate in some contexts, especially in VA where many Veterans have some hearing loss due to their military service. Avoid “hearing-impaired.”

Destigmatize sensitive conditions and build hope

Provide reassurance that the reader is not alone and that there’s hope for their condition.

This may come in the form of the following:

  • Encouraging statements about the condition
  • Quotes or stories from people living with the condition
  • Links to communities and advocacy groups for people living with the condition


  • Depression is a serious illness. But this common mental health condition is also highly treatable. Talk with your health care provider about treatment options.
  • If you’re struggling with substance use, you’re not alone. We can connect you with support groups designed to help you and others struggling with substance use.
  • Getting a diabetes diagnosis can be overwhelming. Your VA health care team is here to help. They’ll work with you to develop a treatment plan and be there to support you along the way.

Focus on small, achievable steps to support behavior change

Many Veterans live with chronic (long-lasting) diseases—like diabetes and high blood pressure—that often require behavior changes as part of a treatment plan. Follow these tips for content that promotes health behavior change.

Give specific actions—and emphasize the benefits

When writing health-related instructions, provide small and specific action steps. Use everyday examples. And remind people how taking these actions can help them.

Like this

Using your asthma inhaler correctly will help you breathe easier. Follow the directions for your inhaler. If you’re not sure how to use it, ask your health care provider to explain.

Don’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for the first 2 weeks after surgery. This will help your wounds heal more quickly and lower your risk of problems like bleeding.

Here are some common items that are likely to weigh 10 pounds or more:

  • A vacuum cleaner
  • A large bag of garbage
  • A laundry basket filled with towels or jeans
  • A large bag of sugar or flour, or a sack of potatoes

Not this

Always use your asthma inhaler correctly.

Avoid lifting heavy objects for the first 2 weeks after surgery.

Be practical and realistic

Consider how factors beyond Veterans’ control affect their ability to follow health recommendations. Avoid describing a behavior change as easy or simple when it may be hard to do in practice.

Like this

Eating healthy foods can help you feel better. Try to plan healthy meals that fit your budget. If fresh produce is too expensive, try frozen fruits and veggies instead.

Not this

Eating healthy foods can help you feel better. Stock up on fresh fruits and veggies on the weekend, so it’s easy to eat right during the week.

Pair action steps with VA resources and support

Veterans can find general health information from a wide range of sources. It’s helpful to remember that when it comes to basic health advice, we’re often telling Veterans things they already know.

So, when writing for behavior change, put the focus on how we can support Veterans with VA-specific resources and programs. It’s good to provide a brief sentence or 2 about VA’s particular expertise when appropriate. But be sure to keep the focus on the Veteran’s needs. Avoid long paragraphs of content about the history of a program.


  • Whether you just returned from a deployment or have been home for 40 years, it’s never too late to get help for PTSD.

Our National Center for PTSD is the world’s leader in PTSD research, education, and treatment. Find out how to access PTSD health services through VA.

  • Quitting tobacco is the single most important thing you can do for your health. And we can help. Ask your VA health care team about getting support for quitting tobacco.

You can also call our tobacco quitline at 855-QUIT-VET (855-784-8838). Or sign up for our SmokefreeVET text messaging program.

Sign up for SmokefreeVET text messaging

Find more resources to help you quit smoking

  • Set a weekly goal to make healthier food or beverage choices. For example, “I will cut out snacking while watching TV 2 nights this week,” or “I will drink water or sugar-free beverages in place of regular soda on weekdays.”

For more tools and resources to help you adopt a healthy lifestyle, meet your health goals, and manage your weight, ask your health care team about our MOVE!® program.

Learn about our MOVE! program

Make risk—and risk reduction—easier to understand

Many Veterans may have a higher risk of certain conditions based on their service history. When writing about risk, make the numbers as clear and simple as possible. And always follow statements about risk with action steps your audience can take to protect their health.

Do the math for your audience

Use comparative numbers (like “1 in” or “1 out of”) language instead of fractions or percentages. If you’re comparing numbers, always keep the denominator the same.

Like this

About 8 out of 10 people reported side effects from the older treatment. But only 2 out of 10 people reported side effects from this newer treatment.

Not this

This treatment is associated with a 20% risk of side effects. About 16 out of 20 people reported side effects from the older treatment, and only 2 in 10 reported side effects from the new one.

Put health risks in perspective

In most cases, it’s more helpful to focus on absolute risk than relative risk. It’s also helpful to compare risks using everyday examples.

Like this

Eating a lot of processed meat may increase your risk of getting colorectal cancer. But the increase is relatively small. Studies show that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day can increase your lifetime risk from about 5 in 100 to about 6 in 100.

Not this

Eating processed meat every day increases your risk of colon cancer by 18%.

Follow risk statements with action steps

Learning that you’re at risk for a health condition can be scary. Knowing you can take action to improve your situation can help. So always include steps Veterans can take to lower their risk, or to protect their health if they do develop the condition.


  • Repeated exposure to loud noises—such as from firing weapons or using heavy machinery—can increase your risk for tinnitus. Tinnitus is a health condition where people experience humming or ringing in their ears or head. If you have tinnitus, ask your care team about our tinnitus management program. We can help you learn to use sound to cope with tinnitus.
  • Agent Orange can cause certain cancers and other health conditions. If you think you were exposed to Agent Orange while serving, you can get a free toxic exposure screening at your local VA health facility. After your screening, we’ll give you information about any VA benefits or resources you may need.

More resources for health education content

Use these resources as well to help guide your health education content:

Clear and simple guide (National Institutes of Health website)

Everyday words for public health communication (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website)

Health literacy online: A guide for simplifying the user experience (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website)

The SHARE Approach—Communicating Numbers to Your Patients: A Reference Guide for Health Care Providers (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website)

Last updated: May 13, 2024