The other day, I was glancing at a new report from AHRQ announcing that 75 million Americans have limited health literacy, when I stopped abruptly. Unsurprisingly, the report found that low health literacy is linked with high risk of mortality and more visits to the ED, and recommended increased communication and education for all patients. But what piqued my interest the most was a line buried at the end of the report, which describes the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, developed by HHS last year.
"The plan calls for improving the jargon-filled language, dense writing, and complex explanations that often fill patient handouts, medical forms, health web sites and recommendations to the public."
It made me wonder—how much of improving health literacy comes down to producing easily understood signs and pamphlets that ordinary patients can understand and act on?
As it happens, I read the report the same day I interviewed Spencer Hamons, a corporate project manager for Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Alaska and formerly CIO at San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center in Colorado, for a podcast running Friday on the challenges and opportunities of rural health IT. During a conversation about ACOs, Hamons argued that successful providers in the accountable care age will need to see their facilities through the eyes of an average patient—and communicate accordingly.
"The terms that we use—we take those for granted, and…they create apprehension for the patient," Hamons told me. "Think about what goes through the mind of a 75-year-old patient, who's spent his entire life as a longshoreman. He goes into a room with a sign on the door that says nuclear medicine and has warning signs plastered everywhere. We expect that patient to give up a certain amount of control while they're in the hospital, but we don't do a very good job of explaining why."
Of course, effective signage is precisely the sort of low-tech solution that good hospitals already do every day. I've been in hospitals as a patient where the signs and pamphlets are written in clean, simple language that most patients and visitors, regardless of their familiarity with the health care system, can understand—and I've been in facilities where a medical degree is seemingly necessary to decipher the myriad warnings and protocols on the walls.
I'm not discounting the difficulty of reaching patients with limited understanding of the health care field and the challenges they face when interacting with doctors, nurses and other hospital staff. But communication is a two-way street, and effective signage and reading materials can go a long way in educating patients and making an often bewildering experience a little less so.
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