Have you ever left a doctor’s office and felt confused about what the doctor said? The ability to understand a doctor’s instructions is directly tied to an individual’s overall health, daily health habits, and his or her recovery rate from a specific condition. Understanding a doctor’s instructions and interpreting public health information is called “health literacy,” and it significantly impacts individual health levels and health costs.
According to research, over 85% of Americans have poor health literacy,1 and vulnerable populations are at greater risk.2 Individuals with low health literacy tend to have higher medical expenses and poor overall health because they generally have, “more medication and treatment errors, more frequent hospitalizations, longer hospital stays, more visits to their healthcare provider, and a lack of necessary skills to obtain needed services.”3
Improving health literacy is one of the goals of the HealthyPeople 2020 initiative, and numerous resources are available to help community organizations, public institutions, and health professionals increase health literacy and improve public health outcomes. Community leaders are encouraged to organize educational seminars specifically designed for at-risk groups, and primary and secondary schools are encouraged to include age-appropriate health education at all levels.4
The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy provides guidelines for improving public messages and individual conversations with patients. “The plan is based on the principles that (1) everyone has the right to health information that helps them make informed decisions and (2) health services should be delivered in ways that are understandable and beneficial to health, longevity, and quality of life.”5 In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provides a toolkit for creating materials in plain language, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a resource for clear health communications for clinicians and community leaders.
Public leaders and community organizations can support the work of hospitals and clinicians to simplify language and improve communication between patients and practitioners. The above resources can help improve patient outcomes and reduce the cost of medical care among those who may misunderstand public health messages and their doctor’s instructions.
The staff of BLH Technologies, Inc.® are skilled translating complex health information into plain language. Together with our partners we develop fact sheets, infographics, presentations, and trainings for audiences of all ages, backgrounds, and education levels. We look forward to continuing to work on improving health literacy across the nation.