How you can address health literacy in your clinic

By Helle Gjønnes Møller

The ability to access and understand health information is fundamental for people to maintain their basic health. Yet more than 80 million Americans are estimated to have limited or low health literacy – and approximately 15 million Australians have levels below the minimum required to adequately manage their own health. These individuals would have difficulty locating information on a bottle of medicine or correctly dosing its content – which clearly could have severe implications for their health.

In hearing healthcare, limited health literacy can also have a huge impact on the patient’s ability to manage their own condition. For example, patients need to understand how to insert hearing aids, change batteries, and properly operate their hearing aids once they are in place. If they don’t understand instructions, how can they follow them?

Literacy versus health literacy

While a low level of health literacy is often associated with minority and specific socioeconomic groups, it’s important to stress that literacy and health literacy aren’t directly correlated

Educated people with strong literacy skills may also have trouble obtaining, understanding, and using health information: a surgeon might for instance have difficulty deciphering a medical form; a science teacher might not understand information about a brain function test; and an accountant might not know when to get a mammogram.

Practical steps 

For all patients, an important rule of thumb is therefore that they should be counseled using plain language and easy-to-understand materials, as this will reduce the likelihood of miscommunication. 

Below, we’ve gathered some practical things you can do to improve communication with the patients in your clinic, whatever their health literacy level:

  1. Speak slowly, loudly, and clearly
  2. Use an amplifier if necessary
  3. Use jargon-free language
  4. Be specific, not general
  5. Use simple diagrams and graphics
  6. Categorize and organize information
  7. Minimize shame
  8. Maximize respect
  9. Encourage questions

In addition, there are some key details to keep in mind when sharing or asking patients to interact with digital materials:

  1. Organize content and simplify navigation
  2. Label links clearly
  3. Include printer-friendly tools and resources
  4. Incorporate audio and visual features
  5. Use bold colors with contrast
  6. Make sure the ‘back button’ works
  7. Use linear information paths

Explore Module 2 of the Ida University Course for further guidance on how to address health literacy in your clinic.