The Effects of Patient Literacy

Patient literacy is a rarely-discussed aspect of healthcare. We often assume that patients can understand and follow instructions on a prescription drug label or an informational pamphlet. However, this assumption overlooks the serious problem of limited health literacy. An assessment conducted in 2003 revealed that almost 50% of the U.S. population had inadequate literacy. This means that nearly 1 in 2 patients may not be able to understand the information that is presented to them by a physician.

Healthcare providers have been educated in an environment of fellow physicians who have above-average literacy rates. Additionally, there are many medical terms and jargon that come naturally to physicians but are difficult for patients to grasp. This gap between physician and patient understanding of medical knowledge leads to the difficult problem of miscommunication.

In daily life, those with low literacy skills may not be able to read, navigate maps or perform other reading-heavy tasks. In healthcare, low literacy causes more serious problems. Individuals may have trouble understanding medical information, discharge papers, educational health materials, informed consent, and appointment reminder forms. This can lead to individuals not following medical regimes, missing appointments or lab tests, and not properly caring for their health. Often, patients with limited health literacy end up with more serious conditions as they are not properly informed about healthcare procedures.

These severe consequences mean that healthcare providers must invest significant efforts into navigating low patient literacy and ensuring that patients understand medical information. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Encourage Open Communication with Patients

The key to navigating low patient literacy levels is fostering a welcoming and supportive environment. Such an environment will allow patients to feel comfortable voicing their questions and concerns. Ensure that staff members are friendly and approachable so that patients can easily go to them for help filling out forms or understanding medical information on brochures. Contact patients ahead of time to let them know what they need to bring. This prepares patients before they arrive at your practice allowing them to feel more comfortable.

In the end, a welcoming environment will ensure that patients do not feel embarrassed if they have low literacy rates or do not understand certain materials. Because patients do not tell their healthcare providers if they don’t understand medical information, lack of health literacy goes unnoticed.

2. Make Patient-Friendly Materials

Clear communication benefits all patients, not just those who have low literacy skills. Therefore, avoid using medical jargon in patient materials. Instead, use colloquial language that is easy to understand. Another tip is to keep things simple – do not give excessive information.

Read handouts with patients, going slowly and doubling back to ensure that patients understand the content. Circle and highlight key information as you are going over patient materials, and encourage questions.

Patients should understand all handouts and information presented. Especially when the content pertains to prescriptions for medicine or physical therapy exercises.

3. Check for Understanding

Asking yes-or-no questions like “Do you understand?” are not good indicators of patient understanding. Furthermore, patients do not admit that they don’t understand all of the information presented to them out of embarrassment.

Instead, ask patients to put information in their own words. Known as the teach-back method, this effectively measures whether or not patients truly understand information.

Patient Literacy in Your Therapy Clinic

Patient literacy is a crucial aspect of patients’ interactions with the healthcare industry as well as their understanding of medical information. Physical therapists need to be aware of this key consideration and cater patients’ medical experiences with the idea of clear, open communication. To help patients fully understand their treatment plan, consider a technology such as AC Health that digitizes and simplifies recovery plans to make it easy for patients. Sign up for your free account to see how the application can improve patient engagement.