Simplicity Improves Health Literacy

June 13, 2011
Jamie L. Habib

To improve a patient’s ability to process and understand health-related information, termed “health literacy,” avoid medical jargon and keep messages simple. These are among new recommendations published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College).

To improve a patient’s ability to process and understand health-related information, termed “health literacy,” avoid medical jargon and keep messages simple. These are among new recommendations published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (The College).1

According to the Institute of Medicine, nearly half of all Americans, even highly educated ones, have difficulty understanding health information.2 Adults with low health literacy are more likely to be hospitalized, are less likely to understand a physician’s instructions regarding their medical care, and are more likely to encounter barriers to obtaining necessary health services. Improving patients’ health literacy will lead to better health outcomes, since medical errors are less likely and better health care decision-making is more likely when women obtain and understand basic health information.

Specific recommendations offered by The College include the following:

- Tailor speaking and listening skills to individual patients.
- Use medically trained language interpreters when needed.
- Ask patients to restate what they’ve been told in their own words to gauge their understanding.
- Use written materials with a limited number of simple messages.
- Use visual aids for key points.
- Use familiar language and avoid medical jargon.

Many patients are called ‘noncompliant’ because they haven’t followed their doctor’s recommendations, but this may be because they don’t understand what is expected of them,” said Patrice M. Weiss, MD, chair of the Committee on Patient Safety and Quality Improvement. “As physicians, we need to use less complex language with our patients when explaining their health conditions, surgeries, and taking medication. Asking our patients to repeat back to us what they understand is enormously helpful in making sure they really do comprehend.”

References

1. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Committee opinion no. 492: effective patient-physician communication. Obstet Gynecol. 2011;117:1254-1257.

2. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Keep it simple, doc. Available at: http://www.acog.org/from_home/publications/press_releases/nr04-20-11-1.cfm. Accessed May 15, 2011.