Posted on April 22, 2014
Addressing Health Literacy: An Always Event
Nearly half of all American adults - 90 million people - have difficulty understanding and using health information, according to the Institute of Medicine. 1
Low health literacy affects people from all walks of life. Even many college graduates don't have the health literacy skills needed to navigate the health system and actively participate in their care. Holding an MBA does not necessarily mean a person understands the medical jargon physicians - or nurses - often use. In fact, well-educated people may be at an even greater disadvantage because embarrassment about not understanding instructions they think they should understand may prevent them from asking questions.
The impact of low health literacy on rural hospitals and health systems:
Low health literacy can contribute to outmigration as confused and helpless patients feel their needs aren't being respected or met. They'll drive a little further, when possible, if the nearest urban teaching hospital's communication style resonates with them. Not addressing low health literacy can also lower your HCAHPS scores and thus, reimbursements. And here's the kicker: higher rates of hospitalization and avoidable use of emergency services associated with low health literacy wastes billions of dollars. 2
Does your hospital have room for improvement?
Do your patients routinely answer these HCAHPS questions with "Always"? 3
- During this hospital stay, how often did doctors treat you with courtesy and respect?
- During this hospital stay, how often did doctors listen carefully to you?
- During this hospital stay, how often did doctors explain things in a way you could understand?
Make effective communication an "Always" event:
- Teach providers to lose the medical jargon - Communicating in plain language won't undermine their authority; in fact, clear communication enhances the perception of value of the encounter and helps create trust.
- Create an environment free of shame and blame - It works both ways: caregivers and patients should feel there are no dumb questions.
- Use the teach-back method - Educate physicians and staff in this tried-and-true method of testing whether they have communicated in a way patients understand.
Getting started is easier than it sounds!
There are an overwhelming number of resources out there, including solid information curated by the NIH. If you're brave enough and have time to do some heavy reading, look here.
Or, for a quick start, check out these reliable, user-friendly resources:
- The AHRQ Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit has everything you need to know to assess your current performance on health literacy issues and begin to make significant changes. Download it for free.
- The "Always use Teach-Back!" training tool kit is a free interactive online learning module for providers developed by the University of Iowa, The Picker Institute, Des Moines University and Health Literacy Iowa. Access it here.
If you are not already aggressively addressing low health literacy in your community, getting started is not as difficult as you may think. And it's the right thing to do for hospitals and patients.