Health Literacy: Hidden Barriers and Practical Strategies
Slide 1. Hidden Barriers and Practical Strategies
This presentation is on the topic of health literacy. The purpose of having this discussion is to understand what health literacy is and how it affects our patients. We will also touch on some practical strategies that can help our practice do a better job caring for people with low health literacy.
Slide 2. Hidden Barriers to Communicating with Patients
Health Literacy: The capacity to:
- Obtain, process, understand basic health information and services.
- Make appropriate health care decisions (act on information).
- Access/navigate health care system.
Our clients or patients come to us with various levels of education or literacy, and they may prefer to speak a different language, and these issues can become barriers for them to understand health information. As researchers realized this was an issue, they began to talk about health literacy which is defined as the capacity to:
Obtain, process and understand basic health information and services.
And to make appropriate health care decisions or act on health information.
And lastly the ability to access or navigate the health care system, which we all know is extremely complicated.
Any client who does not read or write well, has trouble communicating or understanding verbal communications about health, speaks a different language, or has trouble understanding or using numbers could have trouble with these areas.
Slide 3. Using a Health Literacy Universal Precautions Approach
- Structuring the delivery of care as if everyone may have limited health literacy:
- You cannot tell by looking.
- Higher literacy skills ≠ understanding.
- Anxiety can reduce ability to manage health information.
- Everyone benefits from clear communications.
You cannot tell someone's literacy level just by looking at them. A person may present themselves well, speak well, and appear to understand what is going on, however this does not mean that they truly do.
It is best to approach care with the understanding that even those who are well educated may still struggle with health-related information. The language used in the health field is not commonly used in everyday language and even those with good educational backgrounds may not understand what their diagnosis means or what is being asked of them.
Even someone who normally manages health information well may have increased difficulty under certain circumstances. When a person is feeling anxious, or overwhelmed with too much information, they may not be able to understand or use health information as well as normal. [Tell a personal health literacy story about when you had trouble understanding health information.]
At the end of the day, it is best to use simple, clear language to avoid any opportunity for misunderstanding.
Slide 4. National Assessment of Adult Literacy
- National assessment of health literacy skills of US adults.
- Assessed both reading and math skills.
- Focused on health-related materials and tasks.
- 36% of adults were identified as having serious limitations in health literacy skills.
Image: The front cover a publication titled "The Health Literacy of America's Adults: Results From the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy".
In 2003, the US Department of Education conducted the first national assessment of health literacy skills in the United States.
The assessment was called the National Assessment of Adult Literacy and it measured people's ability to read health-related information and manage numerical information related to health.
In this very large, randomized sample of adults aged 16 and over, more than 1/3 of participants were identified as having health literacy skills considered inadequate for managing the demands of the current healthcare system.
Slide 5. IOM Report on Health Literacy
- Health information is unnecessarily complex.
- Clinicians need health literacy training.
Healthy People 2020 Improve health communication/health literacy.
Joint Commission (1993)
- Patients must be given information they understand.
Image: The front cover a publication titled "Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion".
In 2004, the Institute of Medicine issued a report on health literacy called "A Prescription to End Confusion." That report describes that 90 million adults have trouble understanding and acting on health information. They go on to document how health information is unnecessarily complex, and that clinicians throughout the health care system need health literacy training to improve how we communicate.
Healthy People 2010 made improving communication and health literacy one of their key target areas. And JCAHO has mandated that patients be given information that they understand.
Slide 6. Dr. Richard Carmona, Former U.S. Surgeon General
"As a former nurse, trauma surgeon, and public health director [I realized] there was a wall between us and the people we were trying to serve. Health care professionals do not recognize that patients do not understand the health information we are trying to communicate. We must close the gap between what health care professionals know and what the rest of America understands."
Image: Photograph of Dr. Carmona with the text "mentioned health literacy in 200 of last 260 speeches" below.
Dr. Richard Carmona who was recently the US Surgeon General adopted health literacy is one of his primary interests. In one speech he said "As a former nurse, trauma surgeon, and public health director, I realize there is a wall between us and the people we were trying to serve. Healthcare professionals do not recognize that patients do not understand the health information we are trying to communicate. We must close the gap between what healthcare professionals know and what the rest of America understands."
This quote sums up the charge to us as a primary care practice.
Slide 7. U.S. high school dropout rate is 30%
Image: Road painters have written the word "SHCOOL" on the road. Below the image it says U.S. high school dropout rate is 30%. Source is EPE Research Center (2008). "Cities in Crisis".
This next slide has a very funny picture. But the statistic underneath is concerning. In the United States 30% of our youth do not graduate from high school. Another thing that is even more concerning is that this number has not changed in 30 years. We have a lot of people who, for a variety of different reasons, are not receiving the basic education the need to function well in a healthcare system.
Slide 8. Red Flags for Low Literacy
- Frequently missed appointments.
- Incomplete registration forms.
- Non-compliance with medication.
- Unable to name medications, explain purpose or dosing.
- Identifies pills by looking at them, not reading label.
- Unable to give coherent, sequential history.
- Ask fewer questions.
- Lack of follow-through on tests or referrals.
Image: A red flag.
So what are some of the warning signs that our patients may have low literacy. None of these are perfect indicators. But when we observe these in our patients, we should consider that low health literacy could be a barrier. Let's discuss some of the items listed:
Frequently missing appointments It could be that the patient is unable to read the appointment slip or it may also mean that they don't have an organizational system at home to remember appointment.
Incomplete registration forms may result because the form is overly complicated for that individual patient.
Noncompliance with medication therapy. Many clinicians get very frustrated with patients who don't take medications correctly. But this may result not because the patient does not want to do it right, but because the patient does not have a clear understanding of the importance of the medication and that they need to continue taking their medications after the pill bottles are empty. Some people don't understand how to get medications refilled.
Unable to name medications or explain the purpose or dosing of the medications.
Identifying the pill by looking at them and not by reading the label. A lot of people do this even when they can read well. But if you can't read well, you don't have any other choice.
Unable to give coherent sequential history. This may be a more specific sign that this person has had trouble in school because one of the things that school teaches us is how to organize our thoughts and presentation.
Asking fewer questions. If the patient is one who does not ask any questions, he/she may be trying to hide that he/she does not understand.
Lack of follow-through on tests or referrals. A common frustration for us as clinicians, but what we don't consider is that the patient may be struggling with understanding how to make the follow up occur.
Slide 9. Mismatched Communication
Clinician Process: Giving information.
Patient Process: Understanding, remembering, and acting on information.
Image: Picture shows a doctor giving medical information to a patient, who is looking perplexed.
This slide expresses a common scenario. As clinicians we are constantly providing information to patients. The patient must understand, remember, and act on that information. Many of our patients can feel like we're just reciting a textbook or procedure manual.
Slide 10. Our Expectations of Patients are Increasing...
- Prevention (eating, exercise, sunscreen, dental),
- Self Assessment of Health Status:
- Peak flow meter.
- Glucose testing.
- Insulin adjustments.
- Health Care Use:
- When to go to clinic/ER.
- Referrals and followup.
Another part of the issue is that we expect more and more of our patients. We want them to eat right , exercise, use sunscreen, and have regular dental exams. We have many more immunizations to give. We ask them to assess their health status using glucose testing or a peak flow meter. We asked them to adjust their medicine, such as insulin. We expect them to know exactly when they should go to the clinic or the emergency room and follow up on all of the referrals we make. And of course we always expect that they will understand their insurance.
Slide 11. And the Process is Becoming More Complex
Image: A flowchart shows the Patient's Continuum of Confusion. "Patient's Continuum of Confusion" are shown in the middle of a circle. Arrows show the different processes that a patient could become confused about. The graphic is from the book Health Literacy and Patient Safety, AMA Foundation, 2007.
When a patient comes into our office and has to follow through several steps. Some have called this the continuum of confusion.
Slide 12. Patient Safety: Medication Errors
"How would you take this medicine?"
395 primary care patients in 3 States:
- 46% did not understand instructions ≥ 1 labels.
- 38% with adequate literacy missed at least 1 label.
Source: Davis TC, et al. Annals Inst Med 2006.
Image: Photograph of a medicine bottle and four pill containers.
Let's look at some interesting research that was done. When researchers asked patients how would you take this medicine and handed them a pill bottle, almost half did not understand the instructions on a least one of the labels they looked at. And it is interesting to note that for patients with adequate literacy, 38% missed at least one label.
Slide 13. "Show Me How Many Pills You Would Take in 1 Day"
Image: A pill bottle with a fictional doctor, fictional patient, and fictional medication with instructions to "Take two tablets by mouth twice daily".
These researchers went on to have patients show them how they take their medicines. So the first question was to have them read the bottle to show that they can actually read it. Then they asked them to take the pills out of the bottle and show how many pills you would take each day and when you're going to take them.
Slide 14. Rates of Correct Understanding vs. Demonstration "Take Two Tablets by Mouth Daily"
Image: A bar chart shows the following information:
|Patient Literacy Level|
Source: Davis TC, et al. Annals Int Med 2006.
This slide shows some results from this study. Along the bottom (x-axis) you have the patient literacy level. Patients were categorized as having low, marginal, or adequate literacy. The yellow bars show the percentage of patients in each literacy level who can read the instructions on the pill bottle correctly. The green bar shows the percentage of patients who actually took the right amount of pills out of the bottle when showing how they would take the medicine.
It is troubling to see how many patients would be taking this prescription incorrectly. Most of us assume that, when we write a prescription, the patient will be able to take it correctly.
Slide 15. Rates of Correct Understanding "Take Two Tablets by Mouth Daily" vs "Take one tablet in the morning and one at 5 pm"
Image: A bar chart shows the following information:
|Patient Literacy Level|
|% Correct||2x daily||1 morn & 5 pm|
Source: Wolf et al. Patient Education and Counseling 2007.
This slide shows some results from this study. Along the bottom (x-axis) you have the patient literacy level. Patients were categorized as having low, marginal or adequate literacy. The yellow bars show the percentage of patients in each literacy level who correctly understood the label instructions "Take Two tablets by mouth twice daily" on the pill bottle. The green bar shows the percentage of patients in each literacy level who correctly understood the label instructions. "Take one tablet in the morning and one at 5pm.
This demonstrates that providing clear, specific instructions enhances understanding.
Slide 16. Lessons Learned From Patients
- Tell me what's wrong (briefly)
- What do I need to do & why
- Emphasize benefits (for me)
If meds, break it down for me:
- What it is for
- How to take (concretely)
- Why (benefit)
- What to expect
Remember: what's clear to you is clear to you!
Image: A doctor is shown tending a patient with a bandaged arm.
What do we learn from patients? From interviewing hundreds of patients and performing many focus groups, experts have found that patients have some good ideas for us. They want us to tell them what's wrong, but keep it brief, and then tell them what they need to do and why. And to emphasize the benefits for the patient.
For example, If it's about taking a medication, we should break it down:
What is the medication?
Exactly how do I take this medicine?
What is the benefit for me if I take this medicine?
And what can I expect in terms of side effects and benefits?
Slide 17. Strategies to Improve Patient Understanding
- Focus on "need-to-know" & "need-to-do".
- Use Teach-Back Method.
- Demonstrate/draw pictures.
- Use clearly written education materials.
A few things that we can do when working with patients are:
Focus on the need to know and need to do. Patients say that we often give them a lot of extra information. They want concrete steps.
Used teach-back method to confirm understanding—I will a talk about this in a minute.
Use pictures or demonstrate. Don't just talk about it.
And always use clearly written education materials that we know the patient can understand.
Slide 18. Focus on "Need-to-know" & "Need-to-do"
What do patients need to know/do...?
- When they leave the exam room.
- When they check out.
- What do they need to know about?
- Taking medicines.
- Referrals and followups.
- Filling out forms.
When focusing on what patients "need to know" and "need to do", it's helpful to think about what the patient needs when they leave the exam room, when they check out, and what they need to do when they get home. How do they take their medicines, what self-care strategies can they use, what about any referrals or follow-up items, what forms do they need to fill out?
Slide 19. Teach-Back Method
- Ensuring agreement and understanding about the care plan is essential to achieving adherence.
- I want to make sure I explained it correctly. Can you tell me in your words how you understand the plan?"
- Some evidence that use of teach-back is associated with better diabetes control.
Schillinger, D. Archives of Internal Med, 2003.
Another strategy is to ask the patient to teach-back the information we discussed. This is called the teach-back method. It is a way to ensure agreement and understanding about the care plan, and is essential to achieving adherence. One way to do this is after discussing a care strategy with the patient, you can say "I want to make sure I explained it correctly, can you tell me in your own words how you understand the plan we have made to control your blood sugar?"
There is some evidence to suggest that using the teach back is associated with better diabetes control.
Slide 20. Teach-Back Improves Outcomes Diabetic Patients with Low Literacy
Audio taped visits—74 patients, 38 physicians.
- Patients recalled 50% of new concepts.
- Physicians assessed understanding using teach-back 12% of time.
- Use of teach-back was associated with good glycemic control.
- Visits that assessed recall were not longer.
Schillinger, D. Archives of Internal Med, 2003.
In another study researchers assessed whether or not physicians used the teach-back method during office visits and some interesting information was observed:
Patients recalled less than half of new concepts presented during the visit.
Physicians assess patient recall only 13% of the time.
When physicians used the teach back the patient was more likely to have HbA1c levels below the mean value.
Visits that assessed patient recall were not longer.
Slide 21. Teach-back
Images: Schematic showing the teach-back method. It is: Explain, Assess, Clarify, and Understanding. Photograph of a doctor speaking with a patient.
Here is a schematic of the teach back method. The idea is to explain the self-management process, then assess the person's knowledge by asking them to teach it back to the clinician. The clinician can then clarify if the patient does not quite have it down. This cycle can be repeated until there is a shared understanding.
Slide 22. Confirm Patient Understanding
"Tell me what you understood."
"I want to make sure I explained your medicine clearly. Can you tell me how you will take your medicine?"
Image: A circle with a red line through the questions "Do you understand? and "Do you have any questions?"
When you are confirming patient understanding, it's best to avoid questions such as "Do you understand?" or "Do you have any questions?" That strategy usually leads to the answer of "No".
Rather we want to say, "Tell me what you've understood about this medicine?" or "I want to make sure I have explained your medicine clearly, can you tell me how you think you will take this medicine?"
Slide 23. Patient Education: What We Know
- Written materials, when used alone, will not adequately inform.
- Patients prefer receiving key messages from their clinician with accompanying pamphlets.
- Focus needs to be "need-to-know" & "need-to do"
- Patients with low literacy tend to ask fewer questions.
- Bring a family member and medication to appointments.
Source: IOM: Report on Health Literacy 2004. Berkman et al. AHRQ Report 2004.
Image: Photograph of a doctor speaking with a patient.
Beyond using the teach-back method, we need to consider how we organize patient education. Written materials, when used alone, will not adequately inform. Patients prefer receiving key messages from their physician with accompanying pamphlets. It is better to think of a pamphlet as a facilitator of a conversation rather than a replacement of a conversation.
When we design our messages for patients, we should focus on the need to know and need to do. Often times, those of us in the medical field give a lot of extraneous information. For example, pathophysiology rarely helps the patient. What patient's generally want is what they "need to know" and "need to do".
It is important to remember that patients with low literacy tend to ask fewer questions. It is dependent upon us, the staff, to help patients identify what they need to hear again and to assess whether they understand.
Lastly, it can be very helpful to have a patient bring a family member or friend, AND their medications to any appointment. Having a family member present helps ensure that questions get asked and helps the patient to remember what was discussed. Bringing their medicine bottles helps to facilitate a discussion with the doctor.
Slide 24. Visuals Improve Understanding/Recall
- Pictures/demonstrations most helpful to patient with low literacy & visual learners.
- Most health drawings too complicated.
- Physician drawings often very good (not too complex).
- Patients say "show me"& "I can do it".
Using pictures can help patients remember more. People with low literacy and visual learners tend to rely more on pictures
Most of the drawings we use in health care are too complex and are hard to figure out. Rather, patients like the physician drawings because they are usually not very complex.
It is also helpful to demonstrate how to do things. Rather than talking about it, actually demonstrate what the patient needs to do.
Slide 25. 7 Tips for Clinicians
- Use plain language.
- Limit information (3-5 key points).
- Be specific and concrete, not general.
- Demonstrate, draw pictures, use models.
- Teach-Back (confirm understanding).
- Be positive, hopeful, empowering.
Here are 7 tips for all of us when working with our patients.
Use plain language. Think about how you would explain things to the cashier at the grocery store.
Limit the key points to no more than 3 to 5. Think about what you want the patient to remember and focus on those.
Be specific and concrete. Not general. If action is involved, go through every detail.
Demonstrate actions, draw pictures. Use models if you have them.
Repeat and summarize the information. Most of us don't remember when we are told something once. We need to hear it a few times.
Use the teach back method to confirm understanding and to help patients move the information into long-term memory.
Lastly, be positive, hopeful and empowering. Our patients are relying upon us to get through this complicated health care system. Let's keep a positive attitude and help them all we can.
Slide 26. Use Plain Language
20 complicated and commonly used words
- Mental Health.
- Respiratory problems.
- Community Resources.
Here is a list of words we often use that are considered complicated. Can you think of other words we could use in their place?
Slide 27. Examples of Plain Language
- Annually → Yearly or every year.
- Arthritis → Pain in joints.
- Cardiovascular → Having to do with the heart.
- Dermatologist → Skin doctor.
- Diabetes → Elevated sugar in the blood.
- Hypertension → High blood pressure.
Source: The Plain Language Thesaurus for Health Communications (http://depts.washington.edu/respcare/public/info/Plain_Language_Thesauru...)
Here are some examples.
Slide 28. Is Your Clinic/Site Patient Centered?
What is the "tone," 1st impression?
- A welcoming, calm environment.
- An attitude of helpfulness by all staff.
- Patients treated as if your family.
- Patient-centered check-in & scheduling.
- Easy-to-follow instructions/ directions.
- Patient-centered handouts.
- Brief telephone followup.
- Case management.
Image: Photograph of a Family Clinic reception area.
As we reflect on how we provide care, let's also think about the impressions we give patients. Are we providing patient-centered care. Have we created a welcoming, calm environment?
Do we see an attitude of helpfulness from all staff including patient-friendly appointment scheduling, patient-friendly check-in procedures, and easy to follow instructions for referrals and tests. Have we incorporated patient centered handouts? Are we following-up with our patients over the phone? Do we provide any type of case-management for patients who need extra help?
Slide 29. Discussion Questions
- Looking back, have there been instances when you suspected, or now suspect, that a patient might have low literacy? What were the signs?
- Do we do things in our practice that make it easier for patients with low literacy to understand services and information?
- Consider the entire process of patient visits, from scheduling an appointment to check-out.
- What strategies could all of us adopt to minimize barriers and misunderstanding for low literacy patients?
Here are some discussion questions to help us talk about the issue of health literacy for our practice:
Looking back, have there been instances when you suspected, or now suspect, that a patient might have low literacy? What were the signs?
Do we do things in our practice that make it difficult for patients with low literacy to understand services and information?
Consider the entire process of patient visits, from scheduling an appointment through check-out.
What strategies could all of us adopt to minimize barriers and misunderstanding for low literacy patients?
Slide 30. Acknowledgments
Most slides and material were created by:
- Terry Davis, PhD.
With additions by:
- Darren DeWalt, MD, MPH.
- Ashley Hink, MPH.
- Victoria Hawk, RD, MPH.
- Angela Brega, PhD.
- Natabhona Mabachi, PhD.
Page originally created January 2015