Morbidity and Mortality: Just Skip ’Em

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

It’s hard to believe, dear readers, but the COVID-19 pandemic has been dominating headlines and newscasts for nearly a year. And that means we’re coming up on a year of being inundated with a lot more public health jargon than we’re used to.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve covered lots of COVID-related terms (antibodies! hygiene! isolation/quarantine/social distancing!). And this week, we want to take it back to basics and talk about 2 terms that are public health staples. We know it might pain you (and your public health degree) to think ill of these words — but if you’re in the business of communicating to consumers, they really have no place at the table. That’s right, this is our PSA to health communicators everywhere: stop using “morbidity” and “mortality.”

“Morbidity,” as you probably know, refers to having a disease or the symptoms of a disease — it’s often used to talk about the rate of disease in a population, just like “incidence.” And in health comm, “mortality” usually means death rate — the number of deaths in a specific group of people in a specific time frame.

These terms are right at home in, say, a weekly CDC report for professionals, but they don’t belong in plain language health materials. And that’s okay! Because they’re both super easy to swap out — or even skip altogether.

Instead of:

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


  • Adults ages 85 and older are most likely to die from COVID-19.
  • Cigarette smoking is a common cause of disease in the United States.
  • People who are vaccinated will be less likely to get sick with COVID-19 — and less likely to die if they do get sick.

See? Simple!

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

Tweet about it: “Morbidity” and “mortality” don’t have a place at the #PlainLanguage table, says @CommunicateHlth. Learn more: #HealthLit


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