The Ongoing Issue Of Health Literacy Impacts Everyone

“When someone is given a diagnosis…. such as stage-4 metastatic breast cancer – the conversation goes dark after you hear what the doctor tells you.” Outcome Health CEO Matt McNally believes this is the scenario that plays out over and over in doctor’s offices every day. Patients become overwhelmed by their lack of knowledge, their fear of the unknown, and end up making health decisions that might not be in their best interest.

Health literacy has mostly taken a backseat to the more imminent crisis presented by COVID-19, but even that cannot overshadow the need for better understanding. Serving as its own example, the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic saw mixed messaging leading many to question the seriousness of the rapidly developing situation.

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Regardless, health literacy remains a challenge through both calm and catastrophe. While countries are currently preoccupied with the novel virus, the healthcare marketing and communication departments of the world may want to take a page from the point-of-care book to educate patients once the situation settles.

If considered, it’s not surprising that point-of-care is a vital part of the equation for patient education. It's that moment when a person interacts with their healthcare provider and when the ramifications of them not understanding is most significant. That gap in understanding often creates a barrier between professional and patient – they don’t know what to do next and are afraid to ask questions.

Many view this point-of-contact venue as a critical way to engage with patients around education. Materials located onsite can help patients become more knowledgeable about various health conditions and treatment options available. For example, people who have a limited understanding of the relationship between high cholesterol and diet choices could be negatively impacted in the long term if specific lifestyle changes aren't made.

Others wonder if there are ways to improve physician and patient interactions. The healthcare field is littered with jargon and long words that tangle up a person’s understanding. While providers might always speak some form of "medicalese," there are tactics they can use to bring clarity to a complicated subject. “Teach back” methods like asking a person to explain in their own words what they heard from the doctor is one such learning technique that might be beneficial.

Empowering patients to ask questions is another strategy that could be successful in the long term. Giving people the tools they need to navigate those conversations with their healthcare providers is an essential step forward for healthcare literacy. While it's likely that most people will continue to treat their doctors with deference, being able to indicate they don’t understand something is a good start.

Perhaps the real solution to the problem is to look at it through a different lens. The Affordable Care Act defines health literacy as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” Many other countries use definitions that construct health literacy as an asset for good health – one needed in everyday life, not just one required in clinical settings.

Technology has also created new ways for people to engage with the healthcare system, and as patients realize they can choose many of their options, a new kind of relationship between patient and provider emerges.