According to the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.” First coined in the 1970s, health literacy is the way we communicate information between providers and patients. 

The trouble is that oftentimes what providers are communicating isn’t what patients are hearing. Nearly half of all adult patients in the United States have difficulty understanding and acting upon health information. With information more easily attainable than at any other time in history, the problem isn’t the number of resources; it’s how patients are receiving that information. 

In this blog, we’re learning how literacy impacts patient health, which healthcare communication problems are arising with social media, the six cornerstones for health literacy and five tips your practice can start using today to ensure effective communications.

How Low Literacy Impacts Patient Health 

Low health literacy is an ongoing issue affecting patient populations. Among low literacy populations, the most prevalent include older adults, minority populations, patients with low socioeconomic status and medically underserved people. 

For a patient with low health literacy, it could affect their health in the following ways:

  • Reduces their overall health
  • Increases their occurrence of and severity of illnesses
  • Lowers their levels of self-reported health
  • Demonstrates a higher prevalence of chronic conditions
  • Generates higher mortality in older populations
  • Increases their hospitalization and readmission rates
  • Produces a greater emergency care usage
  • Increases their chance of taking medication doses incorrectly

In addition, low health literacy has been known to have a remarkable impact on a patient’s engagement with preventative activities. Studies have pointed to patients with low health literacy as having lesser involvement with cancer screening, breast screening and influenza vaccination

The Problems with Low Health Literacy in a Social World

In a world connected more than ever, patients are turning to social media at an expedited rate. Over 70 percent of the U.S. population is on Facebook alone. During the height of COVID-19 outbreaks, all social media platforms, including Facebook, saw an increase in daily usage.

A recent study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that patients reporting low health literacy were more than twice as like to use TikTok and YouTube to seek pandemic health information than those with adequate health literacy.

The problem with social channels, another study found, is the inconsistency of information ranging from general users to health professionals and the lack of various health information needs, including course of the disease, treatment options, coping techniques and prevention. In fact, at the end of their study, the authors recommend that patients exercise caution when turning to TikTok for medical advice. 

The Six Cornerstone Components of Health Literacy

Looking further into the socioeconomic impact, the Institute of Medicine has listed the following components as the cornerstone for patient literacy:

  • Cultural and conceptual knowledge
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Arithmetical
  • Writing
  • Reading skills

Using these skills, we’re unpacking the top five ways to engage patients through effective literacy.

The Top 5 Tips for Effective Patient Literacy

Doctor and patient conversing

Know Your Audience

A patient’s culture affects the ways that they communicate, understand and respond to health information. 

Depending on a provider’s geographic location and cultural demographics, they’ll want to communicate with patients accordingly. Providers should gather an understanding of their patient population and each patient individually.  

In addition, providers should be mindful of health practices, beliefs and attitudes that can vary from one patient’s culture to the next. They should focus on communicating in a way that is respectful for both linguistic and cultural sensitivity. 

Use Plain Language 

As Adina Lerer, FNP, puts it, if a provider told a patient, “You have mild tenderness to the palpation of the left medial malleolus and with dorsiflexion,” they’d probably give a blank look as they work to figure out what exactly that means. Providers understand this terminology, but for patients, it causes confusion and, in fact, can be a deterrent for continuing care with that particular provider. 

However, if a provider instead says something along the lines of “When I touch the inside of your ankle and bend it, there’s a little pain –  it’s not swollen or black and blue,” their patient is much more apt to understand their diagnosis and actively want to participate in treatment options. 

Additionally, some words can inadvertently have two different meanings. For example, if a provider uses the term “chronic,” what they’re probably referring to is “persistent.” But, for patients hearing “chronic,” they may think it means “severe.” Providers should be conscientious about word choice when communicating with patients.

As a general rule of thumb, providers should speak slowly enough for patients to follow along, making sure they aren’t coming across as patronizing but instead thoroughly engaged with their patient’s understanding. 

Connect the Why

Can you imagine going in for an oil change and the mechanic saying, in addition, you need a new catalytic converter? In an instant, what you thought would be a one-hour $50 job has turned into one that’ll cost you 50 times as much and a full week without your car. When you ask why, everything is said in complicated car lingo.

For patients not understanding the why behind a diagnosis, this can feel the same way, especially if they’re physically and mentally feeling okay. Overwhelm, confusion and frustration can abound when they don’t know what’s “under the hood” with their health. 

By simplifying health conditions and treatments, providers can ensure that their patients understand each step along the way, what their treatment options are and how to work together for the best course of action moving forward. 

Integrate Creative Teaching Tools

Another element of effective patient literacy is using creative teaching tools when it makes sense. By using posters, pictures or other illustrations, providers can demystify complex health issues inside the body. 

Visual aids can break down steps for surgical procedures, medication management, chronic conditions and other complicated health issues. For patients unclear on nutrition or medication guidelines, walking through a nutrition or medicine label can provide clarity and encourage the patient to stick with their treatment guidelines.

Digital devices can also act as teaching aids. Tablets, computers and smartphones can show three-dimensional interactive models, videos and additional patient educational materials. If those same devices can be used with patient engagement solutions, like Providertech’s two-way HIPAA-secure CareMessenger, it’s a win-win for both providers and patients. 

Confirm Understanding

After information is communicated, providers will want to ask open-ended questions to assess a patient’s understanding. This could include, “Does that make sense?” “Do you have any questions about the steps we talked about?” or “Would you like a walkthrough of what we talked about shared in a followup document?” 

Additionally, providers could try the Teach-Back communication tool to determine if their patients can repeat the information back in their own words. Asking questions like this one can confirm there are no misunderstandings for the information communicated: “I want to ensure we’re on the same page for your treatment plan. Can you share with me in your own words what our next steps are?”

For diagnoses that utilize visual aids, this is a great opportunity for patients to “Show Back” to demonstrate by talking through while pointing at the visual aid to communicate understanding. 

Discover More Tips for Effective Patient Literacy

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