Health Literacy Month: How industry communication can impact patient health literacy

Since 1999, October has been designated as Health Literacy Month, a month dedicated to promoting patient-centricity in healthcare communications across the industry. Health literacy refers to a person’s ability to find, understand, and use health-related services and make informed decisions for themselves and others.

The importance of health literacy improvements cannot be overstated. It is estimated that nearly 36% of Americans have low health literacy, and this group is disproportionately made up of individuals who are in lower income brackets and come from minority backgrounds. This has an effect on every aspect of a person’s involvement with the medical system and has been linked to poorer health outcomes for those affected.

The impact of low health literacy

Low health literacy has a major impact on how a person interacts with the healthcare system. More than just not understanding complicated medical words, low health literacy impacts a person’s likelihood of accessing preventative health services, resulting in increased illnesses, more advanced diagnoses, and more visits to the emergency room. Additionally, those with low health literacy are more likely to live with chronic conditions, and have a more difficult time managing their care, understanding doctors’ instructions, and pursuing necessary follow-up visits.

Improving low health literacy through effective communication

Anyone in the medical industry can play a part in improving health literacy through effective communication. Being aware of common pain points such as difficult medical terms, confusing aftercare instructions, and industry jargon, and simplifying these things whenever possible can help communications reach a wider audience and assist patients who are attempting to gain a better understanding of their condition. Some other tips for improving health literacy include:

  1. Empower patients with a set list of questions. Nonprofits, patient advocacy groups, and other organizations that work directly with individuals can draft suggested questions that patients can bring to their doctor. Oftentimes, the verbiage that doctors use to discuss a condition may vary from what patients use in their day-to-day lives, so having a set list of questions can help bridge this communication gap.
  2. Make use of visuals to break down barriers. According to the Social Science Research Network, around 65% of people are visual learners and can process information more quickly than if they were reading the same content. Making use of infographics and other visuals can help distill important topics and break down language barriers that can often make discussion difficult for patients. 
  3. Consider individuals’ reading levels. The average reader in the United States is ranked around the 8th- to 9th-grade level, which is important to take into account when creating content. Shortening sentences, simplifying word choice, and using smaller paragraphs are all ways to make writing easier to read, even when the topic at hand is complex.
  4. Bolster patients’ confidence in doctor’s visits. Many people find going to the doctor to be an intimidating experience, so it can be helpful to share tips for having better conversations with doctors. Giving patients the confidence to share their experiences, speak as slowly as needed, and repeat back difficult medical information can improve each experience in the medical industry.
  5. Create multi-language materials. For individuals who don’t speak English as their first language, comprehending health information can be even more difficult. While it may not be possible to translate every piece of content into different languages, translating some key materials can be worthwhile.

Antidote works with hundreds of partner organizations to transform the way patients connect with medical research. Contact us to learn more about how we can work together.