Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the IHA health literacy conference, where many experts spoke about ways to make health information more understandable to more people.
Health literacy is a complex topic that I’m still learning about, but it encompasses more than just reading skills. According to a common definition, health literacy is “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Encompassed in that definition are basic reading skills, but also more complex skills such as those required to read a prescription bottle and figure out how and when to take a drug, number skills, listening skills, and other abilities needed to navigate the healthcare system.
In 2003, it was estimated that more than one in three U.S. adults had limited health literacy skills.
Beyond those basic statistics, though, are the stories of real patients who are not able to be full participants in their health care because the information they need is not explained in an accessible way. The video below features many of those stories, and is a powerful introduction to the barriers faced by patients with low health literacy.
It includes Toni Cordell-Seiple’s recollection of being told by a gynecologist that a “simple repair” was needed for the problems she was experiencing. Toni didn’t understand what the doctor told her or the forms she was required to sign at the hospital, and was naturally reluctant to reveal her lack of understanding. It was only in her follow-up visit when a nurse asked how she was feeling since her hysterectomy that Toni understood what had been done.
In addition to this introductory video, several resources were suggested by conference speakers that are good starting points for readers who want to learn more:
- The book, Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills, by Cecilia and Leonard Doak
- The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- The Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit, from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Healthcare providers are likely familiar with “universal precautions” to avoid contact with any patient’s bodily fluids; in this case the universal precautions approach is meant to encourage providers to assume that any/all patients may have limited health literacy. As we were frequently reminded at the conference, nobody ever comes back and asks for materials that are harder to understand!
- Ask Me 3, which encourages patients to ask their healthcare providers three simple questions.
- AMA’s health literacy information and resources
- The free online course, Unified Health Communication (UHC): Addressing Health Literacy, Cultural Competency, and Limited English Proficiency, from the Health Resources and Services Administration. Continuing education credits are available for several healthcare professions.
I’d also love to hear from any of you about what you’re doing to make sure patients get the information they need in a way they can use.