Health Literacy

May 1, 2012 | Ambulatory Care Risk, Quality, & Safety Guidance

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About 36% of U.S. adults have trouble reading and understanding moderately long health-related texts (Kutner et al.). People with low health literacy often experience poorer health outcomes than those with adequate health literacy (Berkman et al.). Even people with adequate literacy sometimes have trouble understanding health information. Because research indicates that people of all health literacy levels benefit from and prefer easy-to-understand materials (Weiss), experts recommend taking “universal precautions”—making all materials and discussions easy to understand.

When patients or family members have trouble understanding health information, physician practices and health centers may share in the fallout. Examples of negative effects on the practice or health center include adverse events, poor-quality care, inefficient use of healthcare, and barriers to patients’ self-determination. Liability risks abound as well. Patients who do not understand their condition or treatment options cannot provide truly informed consent or refusal, and ineffective communication between patients and providers is a common cause of malpractice lawsuits.

In recent years, the importance of health literacy has also gained attention from federal and state governments and professional associations. For example, improving the health literacy of the population and improving providers’ communication skills are two objectives of Healthy People 2020 (U.S. HHS).

This Guidance Article discusses what health literacy is, associations between low health literacy and health outcomes, steps to take to improve heath literacy, universal precautions, the importance of checking for understanding, and characteristics of effective interventions. The PPRM members’ website contains two especially helpful tools: Health Literacy: Checklist for Creating or Evaluating Materials presents tips for developing easy-to-understand written, visual,...

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