According to the NIH, health literacy is “the ability to understand health information and to use that information to make good decisions about your health and medical care.” This sounds simple enough, however, 1/3 of the US population possesses basic or below basic health literacy skills. This large population of low health literacy citizens costs the US an estimated $58 billion in healthcare costs each year. These unnecessary healthcare expenditures occur because those with low health literacy are more likely to be hospitalized, and end up utilizing more expensive healthcare services such as the emergency room.
For this reason, it is important that healthcare professionals be aware of a patient’s health literacy level and provide appropriate directions and education. Populations with the highest risk of low health literacy are listed below:
- Older adults (65+)
- Minority ethnic groups
- English as a Second Language (ESL)
- No high school degree
As a dietitian, working with low health literacy clients can be challenging, especially when it isn’t quite clear if the client understands the education you are trying to provide. One great way to help ensure effective communication is to utilize the “Teach-Back” method. This is where you ask the client to repeat back in their own words what they have just learned from your education. Another way to help improve patients' understanding is to always present questions at a basic level. Therefore, opt for questions at a lower health literacy level as opposed to those heavy on medical terminology. Check out the example below of a dietitian conducting an HDL education. Which questions do you think will create a better conversation with your patients?