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Health Literacy in Communication

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is closely linked to literacy and entails the knowledge, motivation and competency to access, understand, appraise and apply information to form judgment and make decisions concerning healthcare, disease prevention and health promotion in everyday life to maintain and promote quality of life during the life course. Knowledge and skills related to self-care forms an integral part of health literacy.

Health literacy is dependent on individual and systemic factors:

    • Communication skills of lay persons and professionals
    • Lay and professional knowledge of health topics
    • Culture
    • Demands of the healthcare and public health systems
    • Demands of the situation/context

Health literacy affects people’s ability to:

    • Navigate the healthcare system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services
    • Share personal information, such as health history, with providers
    • Engage in self-care and chronic-disease management
    • Understand mathematical concepts such as probability and risk

Health literacy includes numeracy skills. For example, calculating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, measuring medications, and understanding nutrition labels all require math skills. Choosing between health plans or comparing prescription drug coverage requires calculating premiums, copays, and deductibles.

In addition to basic literacy skills, health literacy requires knowledge of health topics. People with limited health literacy often lack knowledge or have misinformation about the body as well as the nature and causes of disease. Without this knowledge, they may not understand the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise and various health outcomes.

Health information can overwhelm even persons with advanced literacy skills. Medical science progresses rapidly. What people may have learned about health or biology during their school years often becomes outdated or forgotten, or it is incomplete. Moreover, health information provided in a stressful or unfamiliar situation is unlikely to be retained.

Health Literacy Model
Sørensen et al. Health literacy and public health: a systematic review and integration of definitions and models. BMC Public Health, 2012, 12:80.

Some basic tips
– to consider in trying to adapt your communication to the proper health literacy

1  

Plain Language

2  

Audio / Video

3  

Personalised Communication

4  

Cultural Sensitivity

1
Plain Language

Plain language is a strategy for making written and oral information easier to understand. It is one important tool for improving health literacy.

Plain language is communication that users can understand the first time they read or hear it. With reasonable time and effort, a plain language document is one in which people can find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding.3

Key elements of plain language include:

    • Organizing information so that the most important points come first
    • Breaking complex information into understandable chunks
    • Using simple language and defining technical terms
    • Using the active voice

Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. It is critical to know your audience and have them test your materials before, during, and after they are developed.

Speaking plainly is just as important as writing plainly. Many plain language techniques apply to verbal messages, such as avoiding jargon and explaining technical or medical terms.

 

2
Audio / Video
Using digital media enables users to hear / see another person explain the medical relevant information to them. Advanced models of this can even be interactive so the users can dig deeper into simple, intuitive menus / questions that they would like more information about.This can both be used online (also for mobile devices), by using info-screens onsite, distributed by DVD, or in some cases also incorporated (e.g. for younger audiences) into simple books with built in automatic audio. Using af combination of text, audio, and video this can also be a part of the “after-discharge”-communication efforts that allows users to interact with relevant information and based their reported symptoms can get clear, relevant advice as to proper self care.

 

3
Personalised Communication
Health literacy friendly communication highlights the need for personalized approaches that match the need of the people, clients and patients. It takes into account their health beliefs, their age and education, their knowledge and competencies to make health decisions and manage their own health. It uses appropriate ways of communicating with people without stigma. In prevention related to self-care and self-management one to one counseling at home with the help of trained health counselors using personalized approaches and a focus on coping skills has been a fruitful communication strategy.

 

4
Cultural Sensitivity
Cultural sensitivity needs to be taken into account when designing health literacy friendly communication strategies. Cultural differences between patient and provider, if left unaddressed, have been shown to contribute to poor health outcomes through misunderstanding, value conflicts, and disparate concepts of health and illness. Training providers to attend to both issues can reduce medical errors, improve adherence, patient-provider-family communication, and outcomes of care at both individual and population levels.Translation barriers can be identified and cared for in terms of using professional translators or closely related adult family members and peers. Furthermore, cultural aspects may impact people’s attitude, behavior and confidence with regards to their health, hence cultural awareness and sensitivity is needed to foster better communication.