How to Improve Health Literacy

Today, it seems as if everyone is paying closer attention to health. The passing of the Affordable Care Act and the prevalence of attention to preventive care services and the treatment of public health epidemics such as obesity, influenza, and other chronic conditions, have made everyone much more concerned about their health than in the past. Hospitals across the area are participating in Community Health Needs Assessments and working to help achieve the objectives of the Healthy People 2020 goals.

In addition to the need to help make people want to live healthier lifestyles, there is also the need to help them understand just how important it is for them to make this change. Besides getting people to make healthy decisions, it is important we educate them about how to stay healthy; this can include treatment plans such as discharge instructions from hospitalizations as well as prescription medication directions. Because health is a complicated topic, and includes a great amount of jargon that the general population would likely not be able to understand, and is therefore a barrier to this notion of the importance of health education.

An article in American Family Physician (2005) reminds us of the term known as health literacy, which is the basic reading and numerical skills needed to understand health information and function in the healthcare environment (Safer & Keenan, 2005). The ability of the general population to understand health information is something that definitely needs to be addressed, as “most adults read at an eighth-grade level, and 20 percent of the population reads at or below a fifth-grade level” and “most health care materials are written at a 10th-grade level” (Safer & Keenan, 2005). Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have some form of difficulty using and understanding the health information that is readily available at healthcare facilities, retail outlets, and in the media (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2014). Limited health literacy has several problems including decreased ability to understand the importance of adopting a healthy lifestyle, seeking and using health information, adopting a healthy lifestyle, and acting on public health alerts (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2014). It is associated with poorer health outcomes and higher costs of healthcare (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2014).

If hospitals and other health organizations want to improve health literacy, they need to collaborate to develop a series of goals to ensure all information is accessible to all audiences. The Centers for Disease Control (2011) outlines guidelines called The Three A’s to align the development of information to aid health literacy, and stress all health information should be:

  • Accurate – ensure the information is accurate and is presented in ways that all people can understand, and not “dumbed-down” as to distort the science
  • Accessible – assess the presentation of the material, and ensure it is in a reasonable font size, is in bullet points and sub-heads where appropriate, and in the appropriate channel of communication delivery
  • Actionable – make sure the information calls people to act desirably the way you want them to change for the betterment of their health, not just tell them to stop a certain behavior or start a new treatment plan

iTRiage Health (2013) outlines eight ways hospitals and health organizations can improve health literacy:

  1. Train staff
  2. Use plain language
  3. Review key information
  4. Simplify signage and instructions
  5. State the recommended action clearly
  6. Pay attention to your website
  7. Promote community resources
  8. Provide technology that facilitates communication

As patients and the general population will see the greater need to improve their health as new discoveries about diseases and treatment options are made, the importance of having a basic understanding of health information is vital to improving the health of the world’s population. By understanding the Three A’s and knowing the ways health literacy can be improved, hospitals can better reach out to patients and the community and empower them to make healthy decisions for a better future.




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