improving low health literacy

4 Strategies for Improving Low Health Literacy

A great deal of time and education goes into understanding complex medical terminology and concepts.  Because of this, it’s no surprise that individuals without a formal education in medicine would have a less-than-optimal understanding of many concepts in healthcare.  According to a recent study, approximately 80 million adults in the United States have low health literacy.  This is not to say that these people are less intelligent or educated than others, however.  In fact, only one-third of adults with a graduate-level education have a health literacy level deemed as proficient, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

The reason for limited health literacy varies from person to person, but they often fall under several demographics.  For instance, many individuals with a low socioeconomic status or poor proficiency in English tend to have low health literacy in America, as do older adults and minorities in underserved populations.  Despite so many different demographics with this issue, physicians are generally unaware of their patient’s health literacy levels.  

Why does this matter?  There’s a direct correlation between patient outcomes and health literacy:  the more health-literate a patient is, the more compliance is noted and less hospital readmissions occur.  In fact, this correlation is so strong that the AMA stated that low health literacy is a stronger predictor of poor health than income, age, race, or employment status. 

With consequences like these, providers must make a conscious effort to improve health literacy to the best of their ability.  It not only saves money by preventing readmissions, but also helps the patient’s overall health.  Here are four key strategies for improving health literacy in your practice!

Offer Multilingual Options

When English is a second language for a patient, physicians must be mindful that they might not understand every detail that they’re saying.  One way to improve health literacy for this demographic is to offer multilingual options at your practice.  For instance, offering any digital or printed documentation in Spanish is an effective way to make an office more inclusive.  Moreover, some telemedicine software enables third parties to join a session, which allows for translators to hop in and assist with any language barriers that exist.

Simplify Forms & Offer Assistance on Them

Oftentimes, reading illiteracy is a contributor to health illiteracy.  If a patient has trouble reading, they might have issues answering forms correctly, leading to confusion or even misdiagnosis.  They might also have problems with any written post-visit instructions they are given.  Because of this, keep the sentences used in any handouts, screeners, or questionnaires short and simple.  If your team notices patients having issues reading, proactively encourage staff members to offer assistance when needed.  If patients can’t read the instructions or information given to them about their health condition, then this is a huge roadblock to their health literacy improving!

Utilize Universal Symbols & Visual Aids

When a patient has language or literacy barriers, easy-to-understand images in lieu of text helps.  Whether it’s the interface of the software that your practice uses or the signs in your office, universal symbols help educate and instruct patients with limited health literacy better.  For example, a patient might not understand what “laboratory” means or how to read it, but an image of a microscope gives a visual indication of what a laboratory is to them.

Prioritize Communication

When it comes to helping patients with low health literacy, communication is vital.  Have a protocol on how to best communicate with patients they suspect have this issue and make sure it’s followed.  One recommendation to consider is using open-ended questions rather than strict “yes” or “no” ones if they have trouble answering something.  Another helpful technique is to ask the patient to repeat back to you what you told them to confirm that they understood it.

Improving Low Health Literacy with DocResponse

DocResponse’s clinic documentation and patient intake software has the power to combat health literacy in any practice.  It accomplishes this in the following ways:

  • 3-way telemedicine allows patients to incorporate translators into their sessions
  • Spanish translation is offered for practices with a large Spanish population
  • Its easy-to-use interface is designed for patients of any demographic to understand how to navigate the software
  • Instructions are given in a clear, simple manner so that those with language or reading difficulties will comprehend them

Low health literacy is a significant issue facing many providers.  However, when practices use technology tailored to help improve communication and understanding, they help resolve the problem rather than contribute to it.  Remember:  even if this change only seems to make a small difference, it matters for both clinic efficiency and patient outcomes in the long run!

Schedule a demo to get your practice up and running with DocResponse today.  Your patients will thank you!

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