Healthcare information, from medication commercials listing numerous possible side effects to educational material handed out by physicians, pervades the lives of many Americans. Even when the information is helpful instead of purely promotional, nearly half of all adult patients have difficulty understanding and acting upon it. 

That lack of comprehension has a name: health literacy. Categorized as a social determinant of health (SDOH), health literacy refers to the skills necessary for an individual to participate in the healthcare system and maintain good health. These skills include reading and writing, calculating numbers, communicating with healthcare professionals and using health technology 

Several factors may influence health literacy, including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Education
  • Occupation
  • Income
  • Insurance
  • Marital status
  • Living conditions
  • Peers
  • Culture
  • Spoken dialect

The concept of health literacy can be broken down further into four categories: personal health literacy, organizational health literacy, digital literacy and quantitative literacy. 

Personal Health Literacy

The degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Organizational Health Literacy

The degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others. 

Digital Literacy

The ability to seek, find, understand and appraise health information from electronic sources and apply the knowledge gained to addressing or solving a health problem.  

Quantitative Literacy

The ability to perform accurate calculations, interpret quantitative information, apply and analyze relevant numerical data and use results to support conclusions. In healthcare, quantitative literacy consists of understanding nutrition information, interpreting blood sugar readings, taking the correct dosage of medication, evaluating treatment benefits and risks and understanding insurance costs and coverage. 

The Effects of Health Literacy — Positive and Negative 

Health literacy enables patients to make well-informed decisions, easily access care and better manage health problems when they arise. Plus, research has shown that it can: 

  • Increase the use of preventive healthcare
  • Lower unnecessary emergency department visits
  • Lower preventable hospital stays and readmissions
  • Lower dosing errors
  • Help patients better manage their chronic conditions
  • Improve health outcomes
  • Enhance all six aims of quality improvement: safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient and equitable 
  • Improve patient satisfaction 

Unfortunately, low health literacy is an ongoing issue affecting patient populations. The lack of education might prevent these individuals from comprehending medical information, processes and/or treatment options. Although they might want to take control of their own health, they might struggle with the steps to do so.  

There are many more negative consequences of low health literacy, including low rates of treatment compliance due to poor communication between providers and patients, reduced use of preventive services, inadequate self-care skills, poor responsiveness to public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic and higher mortality. Then there are the higher healthcare expenditures — low health literacy is estimated to cost the U.S. economy up to $236 billion every year

Tips for Improving Patients’ Health Literacy 

Research has shown that patients with low health literacy are less likely to utilize educational materials and other health tools than their more health-literate peers. Therefore, it’s crucial that healthcare providers consider the health literacy of their patients.  

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) recommends that healthcare practices help improve health literacy by:

  • Using clear signage in and directions to healthcare facilities that have been tested with patients
  • Utilizing plain language health information available in commonly spoken languages
  • Testing that health information with the target audience for cultural sensitivity and reading level so  patients can understand the first time they read it
  • Recruiting bilingual staff and qualified interpreters for patients with a language preference other than English
  • Providing forms and educational materials in languages other than English that have been tested with patients
  • Using simple forms that are easy to complete
  • Setting up telephone systems that are patient-friendly
  • Providing clear directions for taking medication 

As mentioned in a previous blog, additional tips for promoting effective health literacy are knowing your audience, connecting the “why,” integrating creative teaching tools and confirming understanding. Other solutions include proactive patient education, patient feedback, price transparency and technology. 

One such technology providers can use to easily communicate with patients is two-way text messaging. Text messaging is the most common cell phone activity, and using this technology offers high potential for reductions in health disparities caused by low health literacy. 

With built-in HIPAA compliance, Providertech’s 2-way text messaging solution enables providers to optimize patient care by sharing personalized messages in a clear and easy-to-understand format. Contact us today to learn more!