Medical web sites provide consumers with more access to health information than ever before but in many cases they can't use the information because even the most sophisticated adults can be overwhelmed by unfamiliar terms, unexplained acronyms and technical jargon. This lack of health literacy is a patient safety risk that can lead to medication errors and increased hospital admissions.
Indeed, more than one-third of adults in the U.S. have limited health literacy--skills such as reading, writing, numeracy, communication and the use of electronic technology. Therefore, healthcare organizations must assume that patients do not understand information unless proven otherwise, Howard K. Koh, M.D. and Rima E. Rudd, who both serve on the faculty of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, write in an online opinion piece for The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The authors urge clinicians, institutions and integrated health systems to take steps to consider health literacy when drafting print, oral and numeric communications to manage population health. One popular method is the teach-back method, which calls for clinicians to ask patients to review and summarize in their own words their understanding of the information.
In addition, they suggest providers
- Take a more proactive approach to ensure successful communication: Instead of asking the patient, "Do you have any questions," ask "What are your questions?" This eliminates embarrassment and gives the patient the message that it is normal to have questions.
- Pilot test discharge instruction processes to make sure the information is clear and easily understood.
- Create plain-language print and online materials that are easy to read and comprehend. Use charges and graphs when possible to explain difficult-to-understand concepts.
- read the opinion piece
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