The role of pictures in improving health communication: a review of research on attention, comprehension, recall, and adherence

Patient Educ Couns. 2006 May;61(2):173-90. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2005.05.004. Epub 2005 Aug 24.


Objective: To assess the effects of pictures on health communications.

Method: Peer reviewed studies in health education, psychology, education, and marketing journals were reviewed. There was no limit placed on the time periods searched.

Results: Pictures closely linked to written or spoken text can, when compared to text alone, markedly increase attention to and recall of health education information. Pictures can also improve comprehension when they show relationships among ideas or when they show spatial relationships. Pictures can change adherence to health instructions, but emotional response to pictures affects whether they increase or decrease target behaviors. All patients can benefit, but patients with low literacy skills are especially likely to benefit. Patients with very low literacy skills can be helped by spoken directions plus pictures to take home as reminders or by pictures plus very simply worded captions.

Practice implications: Educators should: (1) ask "how can I use pictures to support key points?", (2) minimize distracting details in pictures, (3) use simple language in conjunction with pictures, (4) closely link pictures to text and/or captions, (5) include people from the intended audience in designing pictures, (6) have health professionals plan the pictures, not artists, and (7) evaluate pictures' effects by comparing response to materials with and without pictures.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Audiovisual Aids / standards*
  • Communication*
  • Comprehension*
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Educational Status
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Health Services Needs and Demand
  • Humans
  • Mental Recall*
  • Motivation
  • Patient Compliance / psychology*
  • Patient Education as Topic / methods*
  • Professional-Patient Relations
  • Psychology, Educational
  • Reading
  • Research Design
  • Semantics
  • Writing