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Raising Health Literacy, Improving Health Outcomes

October 30, 2018

Health information can overwhelm even those with advanced medical knowledge and literacy skills. Medical science is constantly evolving. Even doctors with specialties may need to expand their knowledge to best understand a condition they may be facing. It can be particularly difficult for patients to retain information when facing frightening news.

This is why health literacy is so important. Health literacy involves the degree to which patients can understand and process what’s happening with their health. It has nothing to do with education, reading level or socioeconomic status, but rather it’s about empowering patients to know what questions to ask and providing them with information in a format they can understand. 

Orlando Health understands the challenges that patients face when trying to comprehend their medical diagnoses, and makes a point to train staff, the public, and patients on the most effective ways to communicate and retain new medical knowledge. Presentations, lunch-and-learns, and providing resources for patients are just some of the ways that Orlando Health improves health literacy at its locations and in its community.

It’s about empowering patients to know what questions to ask and providing them with information in a format they can understand.

Located on the campus of Orlando Regional Medical Center is The Clifford E. Graese Community Health Library. Established in 2000, the library helps patients, family members, health care professionals and community members better understand health care through reliable and reputable resources. 

Professional librarians staff the library and materials are available in person, over the telephone, by email or can be delivered directly to a patient’s hospital room. Materials are customized to a patient’s specific medical condition.  

In early 2017, library staff began a new initiative to expand the reach of their resources by visiting areas where patients and family members gather, such as waiting rooms, infusion areas, special events and Orlando Health’s community hospitals. 

A focus on health literacy and plain language for patients and caregivers are top priorities for the library and are being communicated through several mediums including team member and caregiver speaker events, meetings with Home Healthcare Representatives and televised programming - including a program in Spanish. Healthcare professionals nationwide have learned that the more patients and family members understand their conditions and treatment options, the better they can embrace measures to help them recover and thrive.

There are many barriers that may prevent patients from understanding their diagnosis and effectively treating it. These include language or cultural barriers, fears about asking certain questions, race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, taboos about certain health issues, or any number of things that prevent the patient from thinking of questions, formulating them, or expressing them to their healthcare provider.

Health literacy affects people’s ability to navigate the healthcare system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services, understanding mathematical concepts like probability and risk, engaging in self-care and managing chronic-diseases. It may even prevent them from sharing personal information, such as health history. Patients may struggle to understand how to measure medications, understand nutrition labels, or choose the best health plan for their situation.

Every individual is different. Some may have grown up in a home where they were not taught basic nutrition or preventative care. Other patients may not understand the importance of following doctor’s orders or taking their medications exactly as prescribed. People with limited health literacy often lack knowledge or have misinformation about the body as well as the nature and causes of disease. Without this knowledge, they may not understand the relationship between lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise and various health outcomes.

Fortunately, there are several things that both medical staff and patients can do to overcome some of these obstacles. 

Tips for Medical Professionals

  • Make the information easy for someone who is not in the medical field to understand.
  • Explain verbally what is in the written resources that you provide patients. Make sure to give the patient something to read in addition to communicating the information verbally.
  • Know what resources are available and assess what is best for the patient. Share these resources with the patient.
  • Ask the patient if they have any questions and continue to follow up to see if they have any more.
  • Understand what barriers to health literacy the patient may be facing and take extra time and care in these areas to ensure that the patient understands the message you are delivering.
  • For medical directives, ask the patient if they understand what you have instructed and see if they can summarize it back to you. Watch for any discrepancies and gently address them.
  • Lean on your staff if you need additional assistance to ensure that the patient feels comfortable enough to express themselves, that they have the time in which to do so, and that they can fully understand the information being presented.

Tips for Patients

  • Write out a list of your symptoms, treatments, appointments, and anything else regarding your medical issue before your appointment. Include timing, duration, intensity, location and any other information that may be pertinent.
  • Prepare for your appointment by doing all the research you can beforehand and formulating questions that you may have.
  • Take a notebook with you to your appointment and write down what the doctor says, follow-up questions and next steps.
  • Ask the doctor what resources are available to you to understand the information better.
  • You might want to bring someone with you to the appointment. They can be another set of eyes and ears to help you process the information. They may even think of questions to ask you that you never would have thought of.

Additional Resources

*Pro Tip- don’t depend on advertiser-supported sites like WebMD for your health information.

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