Alt: A swooning doodle on a couch says, “Oh, mortality!” Another doodle points to a graph and says, “I think you’re talking about the death rate.”

It’s hard to believe, dear readers, but the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated headlines and newsletters for almost a year year. And that means we’re coming into a flood year with a lot more public health jargon than we’re used to.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have covered many terms related to COVID (antibodies! Hygiene! Isolation / quarantine / social distancing!). And this week, we want to go back to basics and talk about 2 terms that are the basics of public health. We know it might hurt you (and your public health degree) to think badly about these words – but if you’re in the business of consumer communication, they really don’t belong at the table. . That’s right, that’s our public service message to health communicators around the world: stop using ‘morbidity’ and ‘mortality’.

“Morbidity”, as you probably know, refers to a disease or symptoms of a disease – it is often used to refer to the rate of disease in a population, just like “incidence”. And in health care, “mortality” generally means the death rate – the number of deaths in a specific group of people over a period of time.

These terms are very much at home, say, a weekly CDC report for professionals, but they have no place in plain language health documents. And it’s okay! Because they’re both very easy to replace – or even skip completely.

Instead of:

  • The death rate from COVID-19 is highest among adults 85 and older.
  • Smoking is a common cause of morbidity in the United States.
  • Vaccines will reduce morbidity and mortality from COVID-19.


  • Adults aged 85 and over are the most likely to die from COVID-19.
  • Smoking is a common cause of illness in the United States.
  • People vaccinated will be less likely to get sick with COVID-19 – and less likely to die if they do.

See? Simple!

The bottom line: In plain language health documents, ignore “morbidity” and “mortality”. (If you’re up to your elbows in your master’s thesis in public health, knock yourself out.)

Tweet about it: “Morbidity” and “mortality” have no place at the #PlainLanguage table, @CommunicateHlth says. Find out more: #HealthLit