The health care industry continues to make major advancements that improve patients’ health and lives. Yet health care providers still face an ongoing fundamental challenge: ensuring that patients understand their own medical conditions and treatment plans.
Health literacy is the underlying issue. Persons with limited health literacy skills are more likely to have chronic conditions with the inability to manage them effectively.1 Why? Because too many patients don’t fully understand what their providers need them to know. And patients may ignore what they don't comprehend. The result is instructions that are not followed, medicines that are not taken correctly, and repeat visits to medical centers that could have been avoided. Being sensitive to health literacy can help bridge the gap.
In recognition of Health Literacy Month, here are five ways you can improve health literacy and increase patient understanding and health outcomes.
- Use plain language
You want patients to understand information the first time they read or hear it. Use plain language that’s clear and concise, breaking down medical jargon into simpler terms.
Health-literate content should:
- Focus on need-to-know information
- Use short words
- Keep sentences brief, with one main point per sentence
- Use an active voice
- Give the reader clear actions to take
- Think about what patients and caregivers are experiencing
Patients often need to understand something new and complex about their health. They’re trying to assess choices and make important decisions. But they’re likely doing this while under stress. People often resist what causes fear or stress, and what’s hard to understand.
Someone newly diagnosed may be overwhelmed. A parent of a sick child might be panicked. Worried family members and friends may be confused. Non-inclusive language may cause patients to feel unseen and shut down. These are people of all ages, backgrounds, and education levels. Health information should not add to their stress. It shouldn’t make them pull away and be disengaged. It should make them feel like they’re better-equipped to make important health decisions, with your guidance.
- Use design effectively
Graphics and images can help reinforce key ideas in the text. Medical illustrations can teach anatomy, illustrate a disease, or show a medical procedure.
Page layout is also a vital way to improve health literacy. Readers tend to scan so they need an easy layout to visually digest. The information needs to have a logical shape and flow.
- Write to the appropriate reading level
More than 50% of adults can’t read at an eighth-grade level. Strive for a sixth-grade reading level or below as needed. This doesn't mean you're talking down to patients. It means you're being clear and straightforward. And it means patients know that you have their best health in mind.
- Use the teach-back method
A good way to confirm understanding is to have patients summarize what they’ve learned. You can do this by asking them a few questions at the end of a patient interaction. This ensures they know what you want them to do, and reemphasizes what’s expected of them. For example, a provider could ask a patient recently diagnosed with asthma: “Can you please show me how you would use this inhaler?” If a patient can’t answer questions, revisit the material step by step. Closing this loop helps to ensure compliance with your instructions.
Providing clear education is the key to ensuring patients know how to manage chronic conditions, recover from injury or surgery, and improve overall health. At StayWell, our team is trained like translators, to turn clinical-speak into easy-to-understand content.
1 https://www.cecentral.com/assets/9828/Needs_Health%20Literacy%20-%20Fact%20Sheet_%20 Health%20Literacy%20and%20Health%20Outcomes.pdf. Accessed June 29, 2020.