Competing with health care literacy

This is the second in a three part series on healthcare literacy. The first was about identifying the competition.

Think about what the average patient knows about a hospital. If all the consumer knows about a hospital is from TV, what are their expectations?

If what Hollywood shows a patient is all he knows, imagine how disappointed he is to sit for hours in an Emergency Department. After a long wait, a patient gets a bed in the department with doctors and mid-level providers who appear to be moving slowly ordering tests and waiting for the results.

The average patient may be thinking, “Isn’t it supposed to be an ‘Emergency’ room? Why is everything so slow? Where is George Clooney?”

The Institute of Medicine defines health care literacy as, “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” It turns out that most patients, even well-educated ones, can be health care “illiterate”. For some patients, their first experience may also be their first time admitted to a hospital.

The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has put together this helpful data map to show health literacy estimates based on the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has some basic facts and materials available on health care literacy in the United States as well. The data shows that there are many communities in the United States where the population has low health care literacy.

My working theory is that health literacy is one of the health care industry’s biggest competitors. Add in issues with health insurance literacy (which I will discuss more next week) and improving the patient experience is a real challenge. Patient experience is about demonstrating service behaviors like smiling, using a patient’s name, and checking on them to meet their needs, but it is also a lot more than that. Patient experience is also about education. Patients expect clinicians to be excellent teachers while being expert care givers.

Overcoming gaps in health care literacy requires empathy, emotional intelligence, and communication skills. Empathy and emotional intelligence help clinicians learn when a patient or their family does not understand, even though they may not voice their confusion. These concepts are about understanding how families get and share information with each other about the patient. It is about getting one level deeper with the patient and family to build trust.

Communication is another obstacle. Some days, I spend all day in meetings watching people present information. I listen to how clinicians explain things to patients. We have many opportunities for improvement in this area. There are some helpful tools out there to improve communication in health care settings, like Getwellnetwork. Still, technology will not do all this important work for us. Much of delivering care is still direct person-to-person contact.

As an industry, we must get better at practicing these crucial skills. Recently, I learned about a helpful tool called the Hemingway App. The site runs an algorithm, which makes sure writing is understandable to the average person. In fact, I experimented with putting this blog posts through the site.

Next week, I will post on health insurance literacy, a related topic. The health care industry must improve in how it helps people understand their entire care experience, including billing.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Assessing a patient’s health care literacy can help clinicians reach patients. Clinicians can help patients understand their condition through empathy, emotional intelligence, and communication techniques.

One thought on “Competing with health care literacy

  1. Pingback: Health insurance literacy and the unseen costs of health care in the US | leadership as a practice

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