Define and discuss health literacy. What key strategies can Registered Nurses use to enhance health literacy in clients with low health literacy skills.

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Defined in an Institute of Medicine report as

...the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.

health-literacy is clearly an important factor in maintaining good health. According to a national assessment, only 12% of Americans have a proficient health literacy level. Therefore, it is essential that people become more capable of understanding information and how to obtain their needed services. For, it has been shown that people whose health literacy is low run higher risks of hospitalization; they also use more expensive services, such as the emergency room and inpatient admissions.

Health care providers, such as registered nurses, must often intervene and act as advocates for these patients. They can aid in a patient's understanding by doing some or all of the following:

  • organizing the information provided the patient and, then, simplifying it so that the patient can understand what is wrong, what basic actions need to be taken, the extent of change that a condition will effect, and what outcome the patient needs to anticipate
  • Provide the patient with these simplified, clear, concise explanations and well-organized directions. 
  • Encourage the patient to follow all instructions and take the medicine as instructed.
  • Explain in simple language what the medicine will do for the patient, circling key words on the labels; they can also explain in simple language any forms, literature, or written instructions by the doctor that have been given the patient.
  • Instruct the patient in the steps to take in the event of a problem. For instance, the nurse can urge patients to phone the doctor and not use the emergency room unless there is a dire problem.
  • Explain in simple terms any graphs or charts given to the patients. 
  • Encourage the patient to alert them if there is anything they do not understand.
  • Encourage patients to live healthier lives by talking to them about getting fresh air, sunshine, exercise, and good nutrition whenever they can.
  • If possible, go to a website that is helpful to patients, and explain simply how to use it.
eli468 | Student

Health literacy is," the ability to read, understand, and act on health information."

There is a large portion of English-speaking patients who do not have a decent amount of health literacy which is not only bad for the patient, but can also be bad for doctors. If people were more well-informed and understood the information they could take more preventative measures, help to better describe their health to a nurse or doctor, have less hospitalizations and not as many medical bills. If someone is not informed about certain medical things, then they most likely will not know proper preventative measures to take to keep themselves healthy. If they aren't exactly sure how to answer nurses questions they could show that they are in worse or better health than they believe which can lead to misdiagnoses or too little of treatment needed as well as being treated for something more severe than they have. Health care costs are very high and doctors are very busy. With people being more educated they are less likely to go to the doctor for something small. This can free up doctor's time and allow them to work on more advanced cases. Health care costs would go down as well for tax payers if people were more health literate.

RN's can help those with a low health literacy become more health literate in many ways. One problem faced with many people is that they may have literacy problems in general. There have been many problems and cases where patients were given a piece of paper to read to understand their condition and they were too embarrassed or felt ashamed to be able to let their doctor know they couldn't read. Instead of asking a patient if they can read a nurse can go through all the information with them by reading it to them, highlighting important terms not only to try and ingrain something more into the patient's mind, but also so that way if they have family or friends that can read to the patient, those people can understand that those are the most important parts as well. 

There are also many people who have good literacy skills but have difficulty with healthcare information. Nurses should use more common terminology rather than medical vocabulary. They could tell a patient the medical name of their condition and their medicines for treatment but also let them know what they mean in simple terms.

By making it simple and going through and reading everything to patient's until they see the person has an understanding they can also create a more comforting and less stressful environment. "Stress and anxiety limit their (the patient's) ability to listen, learn, and remember." If the patient can feel calm, comfortable and respected by having the nurse go through everything with them in simpler terms as well as through visual means it can really help those with low health literacy to gain more knowledge.

When it comes to referrals, paperwork, or insurance it is very helpful if a patient can receive very simple instructions, be offered help filling out forms in a private manner, and even calling a doctor to make a referral for a patient/with the patient instead of telling them to do it can also help people to learn.

By giving patients help through telling them the information, printing out/writing down information in simple terms, and even showing photos are great ways to help increase health literacy as well.