Communicating Clearly: October is Health Literacy Month
by Linda Zeigler, RN
Co-director, Picker Family Resource Center
Pen Bay Healthcare
All people need information to help them make sense of the world they live in. Sometimes understanding that information can be critical to their quality of life or it might not make a difference. For instance, most of us don’t have any great knowledge of rocket science, but it is highly unlikely that this lack of understanding will affect us as we go about living our lives. However, everyone at some point in her or his life will need to understand health information and know how to communicate with the healthcare system. This is called Health Literacy, which is about clear communication between patients and their healthcare team. It is absolutely central to patient safety and effective care.
This is especially true when you are discharged from the hospital. The communication to patients and their families about what needs to be done and who to call when a question arises is really critical. If you don’t understand your discharge instructions you may end up readmitted to the hospital because of that confusion.
Clear communication is just as important during a visit to the physician’s office because there are many opportunities for potential harm to patients if there isn’t effective communication. There are serious concerns if the patient leaves the office visit without understanding his/her instructions. He/she may end up taking medications incorrectly and risk overdose or might fail to report important symptoms. Communication is a two-way street. Physicians, nurses and clinical staff must make every effort to listen carefully and ensure that understanding occurs in both directions.
The definition of health literacy is expanding to look not just at individual learning needs or barriers but at health systems, the complexity and the demands. Throughout the Pen Bay Healthcare system, the Pen Bay Health Literacy Team has spent the last year working to raise health literacy awareness. All new employees view the American Medical Association video "Health literacy and patient safety: Help patients understand." Every department is expected to complete basic health literacy training. In addition, licensed employees must complete an online health literacy competency test.
“We are striving to approach all patients with the assumption that they are at risk of not understanding their health conditions or how to deal with them,” said Mike Rich, director of homecare services at Kno-Wa-Lin. “Medical jargon is confusing to almost everyone. We understand that many medical demands routinely overwhelm patients’ capabilities. Sometimes patients are shy or afraid to express a concern.”
Documents are continually being reviewed for readability and Pen Bay is striving to use plain language in patient instructions and assessment questions. “Staff are encouraged to make it easy for patients to ask questions,” said Paula Delahanty, vice president of nursing at Pen Bay Medical Center. “Instead of asking a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question like ‘Do you have any questions?’ they are encouraged to ask, ‘What are your questions for me today?’ A doctor or nurse may say: ‘I want to evaluate how well I explained that to you, so can you tell me in your own words what I have told you or demonstrate what I have shown you?’ This is the ‘Teach Back’ method. There is often a chance to discover that what the patient understands is not what the clinician intended. Our goal is patient safety and delivering the best quality of care. We are sincerely working for that two-way conversation.”
October is Health Literacy Awareness month. We encourage you to speak to your doctor or provider about your communication concerns. To learn more about Health Literacy, visit mainehealth.org/healthliteracy.