Why Plain Language Matters in Healthcare Literacy

Posted by Brandie Linfante from Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide — North America on October 15, 2018

 

ARE YOU HEALTH LITERATE?

Health literacy—the ability to understand information about health- and safety-related issues—directly affects patient outcomes as well as healthcare costs. Health literacy should not be associated with reading alone, but representative of a holistic view of reading, writing, math and comprehension skills. An individual’s capacity for health literacy is attributable to their education, and affected by culture, language and other individual factors. The last health literacy assessment done in the United States suggested that only 12% of the population is proficient in health literacy and are capable of appropriately managing their health.

 

Low health literacy has been directly related to higher rates of hospitalization, inflating healthcare costs. Health-related activities that require health literacy can involve a wide range of settings (medical offices, hospitals, outpatient facilities, community healthcare institutions, work, or home) and varied circumstances, from visits to medical offices or facilities, caring for a family member or child(ren), safety issues in the workplace environment, understanding prescribed treatment, selecting over-the-counter medications, or looking at nutritional information on food labels.

 

"Health literacy should not be associated with reading alone, but representative of a holistic view of reading, writing, math and comprehension skills."

 

HEALTH LITERACY AS A PRIORITY

Consumers today have easier access to their own healthcare information than ever before through Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), and are more empowered to make better decisions. However, patients need to understand how to access the information and what it means. Further, the technology in our daily lives (smartphones, Apple watches, Fitbits, health monitors, connected home devices) provides the capacity for better collaboration with the healthcare industry to use available healthcare data for the betterment of patient outcomes, but here again connectivity and understanding play a huge role. When there are barriers relating to health literacy and the ability to digest and understand one’s corresponding health information, that empowerment and ability to forge better health-related outcomes is significantly or altogether diminished.

 

Healthcare professionals have their own language, terminology and acronyms associated with their specialty, resulting from education, training and their jobs. This language oftentimes is how they communicate health information and is not recognizable within the vernacular of their patients, caregivers or the public at large. The lack of understanding and huge gaps in language and communication between patients and healthcare professionals can cause harm, misdiagnosis, and issues with compliance. 

 

Public health institutions, professionals and public health systems are responsible for improving health literacy. To turn the tide on health literacy, healthcare professionals need more education and resources about clearly communicating to service the large percentage of our population, and their patients, who are nonproficient.

 

Health literacy needs to become a priority in childhood education. The CDC and other agencies have published curriculums for early childhood, K-12 and university-level materials. Yet health literacy lacks the momentum of a wake-up call and social movement to further the cause.

 

"To turn the tide on health literacy, healthcare professionals need more education and resources about clearly communicating to service the large percentage of our population, and their patients, who are nonproficient."

 

HOW SIMPLE LANGUAGE CAN HELP

Use of simple, plain or easy language as opposed to medical jargon can help a patient understand their condition. As patients or caregivers, we may hear the words used by professionals, not understand them and be embarrassed to ask questions, or misunderstand the meaning altogether. For example, the medical terms dyspnea, dyspepsia, and dysphagia all have corresponding common layman terms that a healthcare professional can use with patients—respectively, shortness of breath, indigestion (upset stomach), and problems with swallowing. Rather than advise a patient that they have a fracture of the tibia, it could be explained that there is a fracture, or break, in one of the bones in the lower leg. This extends itself to directions for taking medications also. Making sure and having a patient repeat medication instructions can help with adherence.

 

Not being able to communicate in one’s native language is another clear barrier. For the many people who have limited English language skill proficiency, there needs to be an infusion of illustrations and examples to bridge the barrier and make information relatable and understandable.

 

Use of simple language can be a strategy for making medical information easier to understand and an important tool for making strides in health literacy.

 

#HEALTHLITERACY

Health literacy continues to be a cause for concern as it imposes a clear risk to public safety. The problem needs to be addressed with guidelines being established and implemented for healthcare professionals, institutions, medical schools, as well as public learning institutions. Through the internet of things there is accessibility to resources, research and data that is currently underutilized. We need to recognize health literacy as an epidemic problem and manufacture the cure that improves the usability of health information, and creates a patient-centric, open environment where questions are solicited and welcomed.