The Role of Nurses in Increasing Health Literacy


As nurses, we tend to take for granted how much our patients know about their own health conditions. The truth is, many don’t know much, and by overestimating their health literacy we are hindering their road to a recovery. With new standards in health care going into effect that entail more patient involvement in their own treatment, it is imperative that nurses learn how to properly assess health literacy.

What is Health Literacy?

In most cases, a patient ultimately has the final say in how they are treated medically. Even routine procedures are not first performed without their consent. While this measure seemingly protects their rights, it could hinder their recovery if they are not sure of what is happening to them.

Health literacy refers to the degree in which an individual is able to obtain, process, and understand basic health information. Also included in health literacy is knowledge of medical services and procedures in order to make health decisions appropriately. The degree of a patient’s health literacy will affect their ability to:

  • Navigate through the complex healthcare system, including filling out forms correctly and locating the appropriate medical care providers and services.
  • Share relevant personal information, including a personal and family health history, with their medical providers.
  • Be an active part of self-care and management of diseases and illnesses.
  • Understand the concepts of probability and risk in regards to their health and medical care.

With a new focus on managed care coordination, where medical providers will be expected to collaborate on a patient’s care, health literacy will play a large role in ensuring that a patient’s medical treatment is advantageous to their recovery.

How a Nurse Improves Patient’s Health Literacy

With insufficient health literacy comes poor patient outcomes, higher hospitalization rates, higher re-admission rates, increase in ineffectively managed chronic illness and a higher cost for healthcare. Therefore, as a nurse, you have an opportunity to make a tremendous difference in our healthcare system just by improving your skills at providing patients with information.

Communication is key, both verbally and written, as you must be able to not only give instructions but to assess whether a patient understands them. When speaking with patients, a nurse needs to learn how to put the medical jargon aside and talk in what professionals refer to as plain language. The key elements to talking in plain language are:

  • Organizing the information you are delivering so that the most important points are stated first.
  • Breaking down complex information into pieces that are easy to understand.
  • Using language that is simple and offering a definition of any technical terms.
  • Presenting information in an active and interested voice.

When going over health care issues with a patient, think of Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia” and his “explain this to me like I’m a six year old” quote. You don’t want to be condescending, but you do need to always be aware that your patients don’t have the same medical training that you received as a nurse. Once you grasp this, you will be much more effective at increasing their health literacy.

Increasing your own knowledge about treatments, medications, and side effects will also be beneficial as health literacy begins playing a larger role in medical care. You cannot expect to be able to effectively communicate with a patient about their illness or prognosis if you don’t understand it yourself. Consider taking classes that are specific to your field of nurses as well as care coordination to increase your own education. This will put you in a better position to educate your own patients.

Why are Nurses Perfect for the Responsibility of Increasing Health Literacy?

While physicians mostly fly in and out of patients rooms, it is the nurse who is left to administer their orders. By professional design, nurses spend more time with patients, giving them better opportunity to assess their health literacy.

With the foreknowledge of how astute a patient is about their condition and overall health, a nurse is better equipped to speak with them about their treatment plan, how to take their medications, and what types of symptoms should prompt them to seek further medical assistance. These are key elements to keeping patients from having to return to a medical facility for further treatment.

Studies show that only 12% of American adults are health literacy proficient. This number is shockingly low and only goes to show how much work nurses have cut out for them in the future. With care coordination already being implemented by the major health insurance providers, there is a strong demand to increase that number rapidly. Begin to look for ways in which you can increase health literacy in your own workplace and put it on the cutting edge of the latest medical trends.

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