Improving Health Literacy Can Improve Health Outcomes

A Health Equity Story June 28, 2022

Imagine having to make decisions about your healthcare when you don’t understand the information being presented to you. Across the United States, 9 out of 10 people experience this daily.

Difficulty with health literacy impacts health outcomes, reduces adherence with treatment recommendations and plans, and increases medical costs for all. As an industry, we can make sure people can make the best healthcare decisions by making health information easier to understand and act upon.

Organizations that make it easy for people to navigate, understand, and use health information have several attributes in common. They do not make assumptions about consumers’ levels of understanding, experiences, beliefs, fears, or skills associated with accessing and understanding healthcare. They continually assess the success of their activities and communications to increase health literacy, increase access to information, and improve outcomes.

Here are four ways to make health communications more understandable for people of all health literacy levels:

1. Engage Your Audience in Development

Who is better suited to evaluate your communications than the end users? Invite them to work with you on developing anything that involves health communications: from printed materials and digital platforms to clinic signage and automated telephone menus.

Organizations can establish communication advisory boards to identify and develop access points that make it easier for all consumers to obtain, understand, and use healthcare information. Advisory boards should accurately represent your audience, including disabilities, health conditions, race, cultures, ages, and primary languages.

2. Help the Numbers Make Sense

Blood pressure readings. Eyesight measurements. Blood sugar levels. Health information can be heavy on numbers. Expressing this information in a way that is easy to understand regardless of math literacy levels can lead to better health outcomes. Make it clear what the numbers mean, how they impact a person’s health, and how to manage them in the desired range.

The instructions on a prescription bottle illustrate how critical it is for people to comprehend the math behind their health. Multiple medications taken in different quantities at different times during the day can be overwhelming. For example: 'Take 1 tablet 2 times per day on an empty stomach,' or'take 2 tablets every 8 hours with food.' Visual expressions of this information, such as a medication grid, can ease this hurdle.

3. Demonstrate Cultural Humility

Showing cultural humility can create an environment to hold meaningful conversations about an individual’s experiences and culture and can help reduce misunderstandings associated with them. Many people have cultural norms that may lead them to feel uncomfortable in a healthcare environment or unsure of how to effectively communicate with healthcare providers.

Language and cultural barriers can be significant. Providing information in an individual’s preferred language with culturally relevant references and imagery can help improve health literacy. Depending on your audience, you may need to tailor communication at the subculture level as well. Within the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community, people may need different forms of communications for people born deaf verses those who lose some or all their hearing later in life or as they age.

4. Take Time to Talk and Listen

Comprehension of health information is complicated by two factors beyond basic health literacy. First, people need to understand not only the words and numbers but possibly the new reality of a diagnosis or complication. Second is that it’s harder to process new information when you’re already not feeling well or anxious.

Organizations that emphasize health literacy with their consumers repeat information as often as needed and discuss the information with them personally to ensure they understand. Written, digital, and verbal information must all work together to support and empower people to manage their own health.

We have the opportunity to make health information easier to access, understand, and follow to improve health outcomes.

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