16 Oct

Improving Health Literacy

Improving Health Literacy

“Let’s order a CXR, UA, and check your BP STAT.” Understand any of that? Don’t worry, at one point of our lives we all have been subjected to complex medical jargon and literature whether it be at the doctor’s office, hospital, or even a medical article that has left us in a haze of confusion instead of understanding. October marks National Health Literacy Month and presents an opportunity to educate and find ways to enhance our own health literacy.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of adults have sufficient health literacy, meaning 9 out of 10 adults may be at a loss of understanding basic health issues and literature regarding disease and prevention. Lack of health proficiency is a serious issue, as it has been associated with poorer health outcomes, higher hospitalization rates, and lowered use of preventive services, which in return culminates higher health care costs.

There are many factors that contribute to the lack of health literacy among the public. Education level, socioeconomic status, culture, and language all play a vital role in having sufficient health proficiency as it affects access to healthcare services. Patients and individuals who are at greater risk for lower health literacy rates are the elderly population, minorities, low income individuals, non-native speakers, and individuals who have not obtained their high school diploma or GED.

Fortunately, there are ways to significantly improve health literacy that start right at the doctor’s office. Medical providers are encouraged to use simple and concise language when explaining clinical issues and terminology to patients, and to always ask if patients have any questions or concerns furthering engagement and competency. This should ideally happen before, during, and after the introduction to the clinical issue or terminology to check for understanding. Medical providers can also clarify instructions by supplementing them with pictures and are encouraged to ask open-ended questions to enhance patient knowledge and satisfaction.

Consequently, individuals can take charge of improving their own health literacy by asking providers to clarify any information they do not understand as well as asking for supplemental resources to aid in comprehension, such as diagrams or written instructions. It is also recommended to repeat the information back to your doctor or nurse to avoid any misunderstanding. Since the majority of the general public struggles with knowledge of proper dosing and medication, it is encouraged to bring all prescriptions to doctor’s visits for provider consultation and education.

Health literacy is a shared responsibility between medical providers and the public that together, can cultivate elevated patient care. Following these tips will help improve health literacy for our patients.


By: Saleha Atif, Intern from the UAlbany School of Public Health


References: U.S Department of Health & Human Services-https://health.gov/communication/literacy/