Executive Summary


Why this matters

Communicating statistics on risk is an important part of patient information But, 61% of people aged 16-65 are unable to understand and use health information if numeracy skills are required[1]. As information producers, our job is to help people feel confident in making decisions about their health. 


Numbers not words

  • Interpretation of words like rare and common varies enormously. Always use a statistic such as 1 in 100 people alongside words like rare or common.
  • Use natural numbers rather than percentages, for example 10 in 100, rather than 10%.


Use absolute risk rather than relative risk

The absolute risk of an event increases from 1 in 100 to 2 in 100, but the relative risk of the event doubles. Using relative risk in isolation can be misleading. 


Illustrating risk

  • A great way to improve users’ understanding of risk and statistics is to use visual aids.
  • Using a mix of numerical and pictorial formats to communicate risk is helpful.
  • Visual displays may be most helpful for giving people an overall pattern, whereas actual 
    numbers can be better for communicating detail.


Perceptions of risk

  • Framing – describing something in a positive or negative way – can affect perception of risk. 
    Consider using both positive and negative framing, i.e. chance of survival and chance of death.
  • Adding some context to your statistics can make them more meaningful.


Explaining uncertainty

  • Communicate the uncertainty of data.


[1]. Defining and describing the mismatch between population health literacy and numeracy and health system complexity’. Rowlands G, Protheroe J, Winkley J, Seed PT, Richardson M, Rudd R. (Submitted for publication)

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