Health Literacy: Patients Who Understand Content, Use Content

October is Health Literacy Month — a month-long recognition where hospitals, health centers, literacy programs, libraries, social service agencies, businesses, professional associations, govern­ment agencies, consumer alliances, and many other groups “work collaboratively to integrate and expand the mission of health literacy.”

Helen Obsorne, president of  Health Literacy Consulting and host of the podcast Health Literacy Out Loud, founded Health Literacy Month in 1999 and changed the way so many in the healthcare industry think and talk about patient education and understanding. As you know, it was only a year later that our own Michael O’Neil founded Get Well, changing the way people thought about the patient experience and patient engagement.   

A great deal of ground has been covered in those 20+ years and much progress has been made. But there’s still work to be done, because the numbers are staggering.

  • An estimated 90 million Americans have low health literacy, and those from traditionally underserved communities and with lower education levels, those with low English proficiency and non-native speakers, and those who receive publicly funded health coverage are disproportionately affected. 
  • Only 12% of adults have high health literacy proficiency levels
  • Only 9% of adults of high numeracy levels
  • 50% of patients don’t understand discharge instructions due to health literacy/language barriers

What is health literacy?

A person’s health literacy level is impacted by many variables, and even people with high levels of education and with robust experience can struggle to understand health information. There is perhaps nothing more universal than the need to understand and manage your own health, and there is perhaps equally nothing more universal than the agreement that health information is unduly complicated and difficult to understand. 

Healthy People 2030 named health literacy a central focus, outlining the goal to “eliminate health disparities, achieve health equity, and attain health literacy to improve the health and well-being of all.”

When talking about health literacy, there are two aspects to consider. First, there is personal health literacy, which is how well an individual is able to find and understand health-related information and services and how effectively they are able to use that information to make informed decisions about their health or the health of others.

Organizational health literacy, meanwhile, is where those of us who work in the healthcare industry and in the field of health communication come in. Organizational health literacy “is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”

Using plain language aides in health literacy 

To increase the likelihood that the content you create is understood and used by your audience, you must ensure that you use plain language

This means presenting your information in common, everyday language, using active voice, and avoiding jargon — which is challenging, we know, when it comes to health information. Health communication that is written in plain language is worded, structured, and designed so clearly that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

Part of delivering patient-centered, whole person care is understanding how patients want and need to receive health information — something that varies patient by patient. Something that works for your geriatric patient population is not likely to work equally well with your youth population. You need to know who you are designing for, what you want them to do with the information, and what they need to learn.

This is a key tenent to the work we do at Get Well. 

Content is king — but only if it’s understood

At Get Well, we are dedicated to providing our content in plain language. We offer the industry’s largest library of best in class patient education and entertainment video content, and all Get Well communication, from that seen on television screens to text message exchanges, leverage plain language principles and hold in high regard the fact that patients are people and people should be talked to with respect and empathy.

The patient-facing content in our solutions is developed by a team of industry experts that regularly assesses market needs, conducts peer reviews of the content, and releases new or enhanced information that addresses whole person well-being. From engagement and education activities in GetWell Inpatient to push notifications and resources through GetWell Loop, to text message communication through GetWell Navigate, Get Well focuses on delivering user-friendly, intuitive resources that make it easy for patients to engage.

This attention to health literacy and plain language has served our clients well — but more importantly, it has served their patients well

During the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, frequent communication was needed to disperse important and rapidly changing health information. Resources that would inform, engage, reduce anxiety, and demonstrate empathy, as well as enable remote monitoring and management of COVID-19 symptoms at scale needed to be developed quickly. Of equal importance during that confusing time was creating resources that could be understood. 

Get Well scaled a support and benefits program using GetWell Loop for patients and care teams that was rolled out at more than 200 facilities, including five hospitals that are part of LifeBridge Health in Baltimore, MD. The program showed significant and almost immediate results. This digital solution:

  • Used plain language and made no assumptions, continually keeping health literacy top of mind
  • Leveraged graphics to accompany messaging that were inclusive of people from multiple cultures and backgrounds
  • Selected healthcare resources (i.e., hotlines, support services, community resources) based on their ability to serve people of all cultures and backgrounds

Leveraging our experience with COVID-19, Get Well in August 2022, released the first digital care plan for monkeypox in the industry. Using GetWell Loop, patient-facing education that uses plain, easy-to-understand language is delivered to users. It takes less than three minutes to go through the check-in process and the self-guided symptom check will continue daily for 21 days. 

The bottom line 

People who understand the content they are reading or seeing are more likely to engage with that content. When patients are engaged, they are more likely to take an active role in their healthcare. And patients who take a more active role in their healthcare tend to have better outcomes. Keeping health literacy and plain language principles in mind when you are developing patient content is good for both patients and staff. 

If the content is easy to understand and actionable, patients feel more comfortable with using it, and if patients are more actively using your education and engagement content, your staff are able to dedicate their time to other activities. It’s a best of both worlds situation that takes a little upfront work and preparation that pays off handsomely on the back end.