Health literacy is defined by the Institute of Medicine as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions”. Research indicates that 9 out of 10 Americans have low health literacy – they cannot clearly understand, analyze, process or evaluate the health information they receive from medical and behavioral healthcare providers, nurses or other healthcare employees.
When health information is not clearly understood, patients are unlikely to follow instructions or manage their health needs appropriately. Misunderstandings can lead to a variety of poor outcomes, including the over or under dosing of medications, infections, failure to recognize and report important signs or symptoms, preventable, repetitive emergency room or clinic visits or hospitalizations, and dissatisfaction with healthcare services.
Healthcare professionals can improve patient understanding and retention by assessing health literacy levels and readiness to learn, identifying any physical or emotional barriers that will interfere with learning or retention, and assessing level of interest and the appropriateness of information.
- Assess for possible low literacy. Check your agency’s Electronic Health Record or your patient assessment forms for health literacy assessment components.
- Talk to your patients about how you assess health literacy and tools your office staff use to simplify health information.
- Engage in teach-back. Learn more
- Use an active voice in verbal and written communications.
- Be present and actively listen to patient concerns and questions.
- Assess oral and written language preferences.
- Use common words and avoid medical terms, jargon and acronyms. Define words that the patient may not be familiar with or understand.
- Engage patients in developing collaborative action plans.
- Provide hands-on learning when appropriate.
- Use printed materials written in plain language that use an active voice.
- Consider your patient’s cultural beliefs that may be different than your own.