Education Patient Care

Health Literacy Month – October 2021

Katherine Glover-Collins, MD, discuss what to expect before surgery with a patient.

October is Health Literacy Month, a time to promote the personal literacy of health-related information as well as hospital-based communication and services that are optimized to be accessible to patients. Both personal and organizational health literacy are essential for patients and their medical institutions to synthesize, communicate and work together to reach the ideal patient treatment.

Considering public awareness and wellness, these two types of health literacy support ways people and organizations can use their literacy skills to improve overall public health. Washington University School of Medicine promotes strong, universal health literacy throughout its patient and physician community.

Patient Health Literacy

Personal health literacy is a skill developed over time by learning the language of medicine and how health information is presented. When patients are more familiar with the way their health condition is discussed, it can ease the stress that comes with the diagnostic and treatment process.

Surveys and studies of patients and the general public demonstrate that there is a large portion of people who experience difficulties reading, understanding and operating with health information. A patient’s literacy thus impacts personal decisions about health and the resources patients seek.

There’s also a notable impact of health literacy on health disparities among different communities. Low health literacy in certain demographics of people (i.e. minorities, low-income individuals) can lead to differences in understanding and subsequent health outcomes.  Personal health literacy emphasizes the patient’s ability to go beyond understanding medical information to acting upon and using it. This perspective also prioritizes “well-informed” decisions rather than prescribing the “right” health choice.

Patient Education

Health literacy is important for anyone who needs to find, understand or use health information and services. Caring for our wellness is a constant concern, not just when we feel sick or visit a doctor. Health literacy helps prevent health problems by informing us of preventative behaviors, and it helps patients understand and make decisions to manage ongoing conditions.

Everyone can benefit from increased health literacy. People who are strong readers, comfortable using numbers and medical terminology, can still encounter health literacy issues. For this reason, it’s important for patients to seek education to better understand medical terminology, diagnoses, health conditions and technical information about treatments. Ideally, the resources for self-education are developed or promoted by reliable organizations and the medical community. The information provided by these non-commercial groups are more likely to be balanced and unbiased.

A pilot study on patient education was conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, including Jeffrey Blatnik, MD, Assistant Professor in the Section of Minimally Invasive Surgery. It examined how patients acquire information prior to having surgery and how that information influences their healthcare decisions. Published in the Surgical Endoscopy journal, the study emphasizes the importance of patient education and discussion between patients and doctors before decisions are made.

Blatnik concluded that the study “shows a need for us as surgeon educators and leaders to provide unbiased information for patients to help them make an informed decision and feel comfortable with their choices at the time of surgery.”

Organizational Health Literacy

Just as important as personal or patient literacy is the ability of organizations to enable its patients to find, understand and then use the information or services they offer. When organizations provide health information that is too difficult for patients to understand, a health literacy problem develops. The health system can’t expect patients to figure out health services with unfamiliar or complicated language.

Low health literacy doesn’t benefit the healthcare system and results in higher than necessary morbidity and mortality for patients. Improving health literacy could reduce hospital visits by nearly 1 million visits and save over $25 billion every year.

Organizations provide the best care when health information that easy to access and understand as well as systems that are easier for patients to navigate. This dual effort helps patients make informed health decisions and choose what is best for themselves given the available information. Organizational-based health literacy thus considers a public health perspective focused on improving overall community wellness. It also acknowledges the responsibility these organizations have to addressing health literacy in their own departments alongside the community they serve.

The medical community can improve health literacy through clear language and communication strategies to build trust with the audience. It also prevents the exclusionary practice of using jargon that the average person cannot understand. Practices to promote health literacy among patients includes creating understandable written resources, working with educators to support patients and improving overall patient-physician communication.

Hospitals can develop programs to promote organizational literacy, too, such as educational workshops for their employees. Other resources hospitals can develop and disperse to their community include:

  • Social media promotion
  • Digital tools and video lectures
  • Group promotional events
  • Printed and online content

Health literacy education resources exist at Washington University. Within the strong Health Information Services team, Mychal Voorhees is a Health Communication and Training Specialist who specializes in health literacy training, editing and simplifying patient materials for accessible content, and patient-provider communication best practices.

The Center for Health and Science Communication was recently announced and supports the conversation and efforts of patient education and health literacy. It will focus on education, skill-building and services for Washington University’s health communication efforts. Programming will include workshop activities and discussions with leaders in the field. The center will also continue to provide the library’s customized health communication services. The Center will be led by Mychal Voorhees.

Health Literacy at Washington University

For more information on health literacy – both personal and organizational – browse the wealth of resources provided by the Becker Medical Library.