Health literacy is about reaching people where they are—and getting through to them. Do you want compliance with instructions and medications? Better outcomes? Fewer readmissions? All of this starts with a patient being able to grasp what you want them to know. They need to be able to pay attention to the details you want them to see. They need to understand what’s at stake, and what their role is. They need to have reasonable expectations, and know what clear steps they must take.
Health literacy hasn’t always been a conversation point in the medical industry, but over time, providers and insurers have learned how crucial it is to communicate clearly with patients to improve everyone’s outcomes. And its importance is more apparent now in addressing vaccine hesitancy and combatting health misinformation—in fact, it’s a key part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2030 initiative, as a proactive directive for both individuals and organizations. Health literacy is now truly a crucial part of the fabric of our health industry.
In recognition of Health Literacy Month, we offer five solid principles of health literacy that continue to prove successful in helping providers reach patients where they are in their life and health journeys:
- Consider things from the patient point of view
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 probably 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.
- Recognize reading comprehension obstacles
More than 50% of adults can’t read at an eighth-grade level.1 And reading comprehension declines in times of stress even for high literacy patients. Patient education written to a sixth-grade reading level or below simply means you reach more people. This doesn't mean you're talking down to patients. It means you're being clear. And it means patients know that you have their best health in mind.
- 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. Break down medical terminology into simpler terms. Make sure you:
- Focus on need-to-know information
- Use non-jargon words
- Keep sentences brief, with one main point per sentence
- Use an active voice, noting who’s doing what
- Give the patient clear actions to take
- Reach audiovisual learners with video
Many people absorb information well through watching and listening, not just reading. Video-based patient education can drive home messages and improve understanding. It can help patients have a clearer view of their health trajectory and their tasks. We’ve identified 5 benefits of video-based patient education. And we want you to know 4 ways video can elevate patient experience and outcomes.
- Use the teach-back method
A good way to confirm understanding is to have patients tell you 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 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.
Giving patients clear education is the key to ensuring they know how to manage their acute or chronic conditions, recover from injury or surgery, and improve everyone’s outcomes. At Krames, our team is trained like translators, to turn clinical-speak into easy-to-understand content for patients to read, watch, learn, and improve their health.
Strauss, V. Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/11/01/hiding-in-plain-sight-the-adult-literacy-crisis/. Updated November 1, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2021.