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Health Literacy in the Physician Practice

Monday, January 5, 2015

Contributor Pauline Jakubiec, M.S., and CPHRM

According to the National Assessment for Adult Literacy, only 12% of adults are competent in health literacy. Nearly 9 out of 10 adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease and 14% of adults (30 million people) have extremely low health literacy. 

Among these lowly educated people, 42% are more likely to report their health as poor and 28% are more likely to lack health insurance. This places them in the system (and the office more frequently) than adults with proficient health literacy.  Furthermore, low literacy leads to poor health effects such as increased hospitalizations and less frequent use of preventative services. These outcomes are in concert with higher healthcare costs.  

Patients that a physician or provider may regard as “non-compliant”, may actually have a low health literacy issue.  Many patients demonstrate an incomplete registration form or exhibit frequently missed appointments, skipping tests or referrals and may be defiant with their medications.  If patients experience communication issues, they may display a difficulty or inability to explain their medical concerns.  Some patients may deflect by letting the physician miss the concern, voice no questions or become unable to name or explain the purpose and timing of their medications.

Therefore, it becomes necessary to create a “shame-free” environment that empowers low health literate patients to make the provider aware of the gap in health literacy.  Medical providers should utilize techniques to ensure a patient’s understanding.  First impressions make a big difference, including exhibiting attitudes of helpfulness, caring and respect by all staff.  Use easy to follow instructions for appointments, check-in, referrals and tests.   Any assistance you may offer should be provided confidentially and utilize an interpreter if necessary.

Patient-centered visits will enhance communication and patient interaction.  Explain things clearly using plain language; focus on key messages and repeat.  Utilizing a “teach-back” or “show me” technique is often beneficial when confirming an understanding. Use patient-friendly educational materials to enhance the encounter / interaction.  

In conclusion, it is important to engage office staff to improve their understanding of the health literacy gap. Prepare staff with skill-building techniques to provide the expertise to better identify and manage the patients that may be experiencing health literacy issues within your practice.    






Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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