Are you empowering patients with these health literacy strategies?

October is Health Literacy Monthan opportunity for providers and health teams to discover fresh ways to boost health literacy efforts. Patient empowerment through knowledge is essential.

Personal health literacy refers to the ability of individuals to find, understand, and use information and services that can inform their health decisions and actions, both for themselves and others. The emphasis here is on helping patients to use health information, not just understand it. With health literacy, patients and their caregivers can make well-informed decisions that build trust in a health team and advance health equity overall.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are a number of best practices that have been shown to improve health literacy skills. Those include:

Building literacy skills with more training

The CDC offers three online literacy courses for health professionals that cover the basics of health literacy, the fundamentals of communicating health risks, and addressing cultural differences and limited English proficiency.

Using plain language and developing materials with more visual elements can be helpful. A good starting point is having health team members review the Federal Plain Language Guidelines, an online resource geared toward helping users write clear and concise language. The site has numerous examples in various formats, including handbooks and publications.

Developing materials specific to your patient population

Although some general information can be helpful, it's best if you take the time to understand your patient audience in a way that identifies their:

  • Needs, wants, motivations, attitudes, and values.
  • Literacy and numeracy skills.
  • Cultural beliefs and practices.
  • Preferred communication channels for receiving health messages.

For example, older adults can have different preferences for receiving health information compared to younger patients. Surveys and other tools can help, and you don't necessarily have to create them from scratch — check out these examples and consider whether one of them may match what you need.

Putting together online resources

Some health literacy tools may work for certain patients but not others. That's why it's helpful to have several online resources that can be given to patients.

One that will likely appeal to an array of patients is MyHealthfinder, provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This site offers a breadth of content on topics like which screening tests are appropriate based on a patient's age and family history, why managing stress is essential for health, how to make small but crucial changes in eating habits, and why regular checkups matter.

Emphasizing patient-centric best practices

The Health Care Education Association provides best practices for patient education based on four components: assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation. The association emphasizes that each component is essential for effective education, and each one advances health literacy through multiple actions. For example, implementation includes:

  • Using active listening skills, such as paying attention, withholding judgment, clarifying, and summarizing
  • Staying attuned to the patient's non-verbal cues and responses like eye contact and body language
  • Identifying "teachable moments" when a patient asks questions
  • Maintaining the patient's self-esteem through an empathetic tone and language
  • Framing a message by telling a patient in one or two sentences what you'll be teaching
  • Educating in small segments and verifying understanding before moving on to the next
  • Summarizing and reviewing key points
  • Encouraging patients to ask questions
  • Using analogies familiar to a patient; for instance, comparing a cardiovascular blockage to a pipe that's partially clogged so water can't flow through completely

With tactics like these and many others that the association provides, a healthcare team can deepen its approach to patient-centered health literacy.

Considering health literacy an ongoing effort

As with any healthcare program, health literacy will be an ongoing and evolving effort that will benefit from tracking its efficacy and regularly adding new content and resources.

Taking the time to bolster health literacy — all year round, not just in October — can deliver a significant return on that investment, with patients who feel more empowered, informed, and ready to participate in their health.


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