8 Strategies for Health Literacy

April 14, 2014

8 Ways Your Organization Can Improve Health Literacy


Nearly 9 out of 10 adults lack the skills to manage their health and prevent disease according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. In rural areas, the rate is even higher due to an older, poorer, and less educated population who are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions. Low health literacy has been linked to higher rates of hospitalization, less frequent use of preventative services, and higher healthcare costs.


Why health literacy matters

Health literacy is the ability of a person to access, process and understand information needed to make informed health decisions. People with higher degrees of health literacy are better able to:


  • Navigate the healthcare system by locating appropriate providers and services

  • Follow medication and treatment instructions

  • Feel comfortable filling out forms

  • Share personal health information with providers

  • Be proactive about preventative health

  • Engage in chronic disease management


With increased attention on healthcare outcomes, health literacy is more important than ever before. An organization that focuses on health literacy makes it easier for members of their community to access information and adopt healthy behaviors, which can lead to more engaged consumers and a healthier population.


Here are 8 ways to improve health literacy


1. Train staff

Provide all employees with the resources and training to improve patient communication. The “Teach-Back” approach involves educating patients about their diagnosis and treatment, and then asking them to restate what they need to know or do. This confirms that the patient understands what’s been explained to them, and makes them feel more involved in their care.


2. Use plain language

Plain language is communication that can be understood the first time it is heard or read. It includes using an active voice, eliminating medical jargon, and presenting shorter chunks of information at a time. Plain language can be used in all patient communication including forms, signage and verbal communications. See the difference plain language makes in patient communication.


3. Review key information

Feeling anxious during an appointment can be an added barrier to a patient’s ability to understand and remember information. Review and summarize key points and encourage patients to ask questions before they leave by phrasing “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have any questions?” Studies have also shown that using illustrations can help patients better understand and retain information.


4. Simplify signage and instructions

Incorporate signage that is clear and accurate throughout your facility, using plain language, larger fonts and simple graphics. Patients who are able to process the information they need are more likely to feel confident and in control about their healthcare. To improve comprehension among non-English speaking patients and their families, Children’s Hospital Central California provides them with a recording of specific discharge instructions in their native language.


5. State the recommended action clearly

State the desired patient action, focusing on the behavior, whether it is medication adherence, additional tests, or lifestyle changes. Hearing specific actions can help patients see the long-term benefits of healthier outcomes. For example, “get at least 7 hours of sleep each night” is more specific than “get adequate rest”.


6. Pay attention to your website

As more people go online to search for health information, improving the usability of your website will make it easier for visitors to find relevant information they need to quickly make decisions. According to Pew Research, 80% of Internet users in the U.S. search for health information, and of those, 60% search for information about a specific medical treatment or procedure. Sunrise Hospital and Advocate Condell Medical Center are examples of user-friendly websites that are easy to navigate.


7. Promote community resources

Keep your population engaged by providing access to resources and programs that encourage healthy behaviors and offer tips for managing chronic conditions. Offer information about classes and community educational programs that help patients understand specific health issues along with those that encourage preventative screenings. Get Healthy SLV, a project of San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center in Alamosa, CO, promotes health tips and local services to encourage a healthier community.


8. Provide technology that facilitates communication

More than 80% of consumers want 24/7 access to doctors and lab results, along with the ability to request appointments online, according to Harris Interactive. Mobile and Web Technology can improve access to care with simple tools that make it easy to connect patients and providers. As providers work toward meeting MU2 requirements, providing mobile access to portals is key to helping patients access health information, communicate with their doctors and manage chronic conditions.


Effective patient-provider communication is critical to improving health literacy and healthcare outcomes.


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