Can Physicians Improve the Health Literacy of Their Patients?


IRVINE, CALIF. — Keep an eye out for patients who are at high risk for low health literacy—typically seniors, immigrants, those with low levels of education, Medicaid recipients, and those in poor health, Jeannette Hilgert said at a meeting sponsored by the Institute for Healthcare Advancement.

Once you've identified a patient with low health literacy, adjust your approach, said Ms. Hilgert, program administrator at the Venice (Calif.) Family Clinic. Speak slowly, use plain, nonmedical language, and repeat the important information.

It is also a good idea to review written materials for clarity and simplicity. Consider using a variety of visual aids that portray written instructions, such as prescription instructions and preventive strategies. Recent studies indicate that patients' adherence to medical instructions improved by at least 25% when the instructions were supplemented with visual aids.

Health care visits are particularly overwhelming and confusing to patients with chronic conditions, Ms. Hilgert said. A survey at the Venice Family clinic discovered 33% of patients do not initiate discussions about their health with their doctor. Half said they did not ask questions because they did not know how or they felt their doctor knew best.

To address this insecurity, encourage patients to ask lots of questions and to take an active part in their own care. An equal partnership between physician and patient can increase the likelihood of positive health outcomes, said Marian Ryan, corporate director of disease management and health education for Molina Healthcare Inc. “Self-management is key. Without it, patients can't be active partners,” said Ms. Ryan. Patients who get involved in their health care experience an increased sense of control and may be motivated to take better care of themselves. This effect increases with the length of time patients are actively involved in their own health care.

“Once they get excited by one step they took that led to success, they start inquiring,” said Ms. Hilgert about patients she observed at the Venice Family Clinic, adding that it follows that patients who ask more questions and are actively involved in their care are more likely to follow doctors' medical advice.

Next Article: