Reducing Health Illiteracy: How to Help Your Patients Comprehend Medical Information

The coronavirus pandemic has put a new spotlight on the issue of health illiteracy, or the inability to comprehend and retain important medical information. Social media can be a part of the problem and the solution. Apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have no shortage of misinformation regarding COVID-19. It wasn’t that long ago that the President of the United States was touting unproven drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and recommending that people inject themselves with bleach (whether he was “joking” or not).

This type of misinformation – as well as a lack of comprehensible information – has become a major problem amid the pandemic. Nurses and doctors now find themselves correcting false or misleading “facts” in addition to monitoring and treating their patients for symptoms.

According to the report Low Health Literacy, this major problem costs the U.S. economy between $106 billion to $238 billion annually. Learn the facts on health misinformation, so we can all do our part to reverse this trend.

What is Health Illiteracy?

This type of illiteracy is more complicated than you might think. It can take many forms as people try to navigate the U.S. healthcare system, including:

  • Reading and signing consent forms related to medical treatment
  • Protecting themselves from the spread of infectious disease
  • Reducing lifestyle risk factors for chronic disease
  • Lack of awareness of their own health
  • Trouble reading food and medication labels
  • Difficulty comprehending and adhering to health advice from providers

A recent study from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) shows that many people do not fully comprehend their discharge instructions when leaving the hospital. Nearly 1 in 3 of the 17,309 patients they interviewed said that the instructions they received from their health provider were “not easy to understand.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made some of these trends acutely visible. For example, high blood pressure is one of the leading risk factors for COVID-19, yet many people are not aware of their own blood pressure. Some people think that they do not have hypertension because their lives aren’t stressful, but high blood pressure is not the same as stress.

As we learn more about how the virus affects the cardiovascular system, the American Heart Association recently released its 2020 Impact Goals for reducing health illiteracy. They believe this campaign could improve cardiovascular health by 20% for all Americans.

Who’s at Risk?

Older individuals, non-native English speakers, and low-income and minority Americans tend to have the most trouble with this. These are also the types of people most likely to die of COVID-19.

However, improving health literacy isn’t just about education and having a college degree. The fact is that it can affect anyone.

When a person feels sick or suspects that they are ill, they likely won’t think as clearly as they would if they felt healthy. Scheduling appointments, following up with a specialist, taking medication, and complying with the doctor’s recommendations can feel like learning a second language when you’re sick. The same can be true of caregivers and parents with a sick child. The stress and perceived risks can be overwhelming when you’re trying to take care of a loved one.

According to Michael S. Wolf, director of the Center for Applied Health Research on Aging at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, 1 in 5 people struggle with health misinformation.  

He also says the coronavirus pandemic is complicating these trends. “None of this is intuitive,” as he told the Washington Post. People are dealing with an invisible threat that seems to go against their usual instincts. Providers now must remind their patients to use caution when hanging out with their friends and loved ones, which goes against human nature.  

Tips for Reducing Health Illiteracy

  • Use specific language that feels relatable to your patients. For example, many people struggle to comprehend the labels on their medication. “Take two pills, twice daily” is often misunderstood. Instead, try using the phrase, “Take two in the morning and two at bedtime.”
  • Link health knowledge to healthy outcomes. Researchers say that health literacy is one of the best predictors of someone’s health status. Focus on educating and reaching out to patients who are less likely to understand this information. Let your patients know that you are available if they have any questions regarding treatment, taking their medication, or protecting themselves from disease.
  • Consider rephrasing medical pamphlets and take-home information packets. Most Americans can read at the eighth-grade level, but studies show that most health education materials exceed this level, which means your patients may have trouble making sense of this information.
  • Be proactive. Do not assume that your patients understand what you’re saying, especially if they are concerned with their health. Many people may be afraid to ask questions or admit they are confused. Ask patients to repeat what you’ve just said instead of asking them, “Do you understand?”
  • When a patient doesn’t ask questions, they may not have the tools or knowledge to do so. Try posing hypothetical questions to see if they need additional information.
  • Use pictures and visuals instead of relying on text and statistics, especially when dealing with non-English speakers. Identify and define complex words that can throw some of your patients for a loop, such as “comorbidity,” and “immunocompromised”.
  • Be as detailed as possible when recommending treatment and lifestyle habits. For example, when telling your patients to disinfect surfaces or wear a mask, make sure they know how to complete these steps, including what products to use and where to get them.

We all have a role to play when it comes to reducing health illiteracy. Use these tips to make sure your patients understand what you’re saying, even when they don’t ask questions.

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