5 Ways to Improve Health Literacy

Health LiteracyTo most of us, improving the overall quality of health care and reducing costs without cutting programs or services seems impossible. Heated political debates and the news media have most of us convinced that there’s just no easy way to improve our existing health care system without sacrificing something, but this is a case of treating the symptoms instead of curing the source.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), only 12 percent of American adults possess a proficient level of health literacy. Stop and think about that for a moment. This means that almost 90 percent of adults in the United States are illiterate when it comes to their health. Studies continually link low rates of health literacy to higher rates of hospitalization and lower usage of preventive care services. The same preventive care services that could effectively prevent patients from hospitalization – hospitalizations that drive up the overall cost of health care. It’s clear that improving health literacy is an extremely important part of improving America’s health care system. So how can public health professionals improve health literacy?

Five ways to improve health literacy are to use plain language, visuals, multilingual translations, the teach back method, and a call to action in your health education materials.

1. Use Plain Language


Just because someone has poor health literacy doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent. It just means that they don’t understand complex medical terminology. Instead of just using jargon, make sure to define any medical terms in a way that’s easy for people to understand. Clearly present the information they need to know and organize lengthy pieces of information into shorter sections that are quicker to read and understand.

2. Use Visuals


Humans are visual creatures. Presenting health information with visuals allows patients see the information in a different way and helps make information that that’s dry and boring into something that’s interesting and engaging. For more about about using visuals, check out our previous post that discusses improving health literacy with visuals.

3. Offer Multi-Language Materials


There are nearly 7,000 different languages spoken around the world today. Don’t assume that the only language your readers read or speak is English and Spanish.  Now, this doesn’t mean that your health education materials need to look like the Rosetta Stone, but it does mean that you should have multi language materials available so everyone has the opportunity to access and understand the information.

4. Use the Teach-Back Method


As a healthcare professional, one of your primary goals is to help patients better understand their specific health needs. Rather than use health education materials as a substitute for interpersonal communication, use them in conjunction. Give the patient some time to read through the materials and then ask them to summarize and explain the main points to you, (i.e. the Teach-Back Method). This gives you time to address any part(s) they don’t understand and answer any questions they might have. Reviewing with the patient helps them retain the information and reduces the chances of them being hospitalized for a condition they could have prevented.

5. Include a Call-to-Action


While it’s important for patients to understand your health education materials, it’s just as important for them to take action as a result from understanding them. Including a clear call-to-action or a short list of actionable steps, (much like this blog), makes your materials more relevant to your reader. When you tell someone they have a medical condition, their natural reaction is to ask what to do about it. Encourage patients to take action by providing them with solutions, instead of just presenting them with the problem. Health care professionals wouldn’t tell patients they have a problem and they can’t do anything about it. Instead, present them with the problem and provide them with an actionable plan to achieve the solution.

As healthcare professionals, improving health literacy is a shared responsibility. Five ways to improve the health literacy of our patients is to ensure our health education materials use plain language, visuals, multilingual translations, the Teach-Back method, and a call-to-action. Download our health literacy checklist to make sure you’re providing patients with the best possible resources to understand and take an active role in their personal health.