Male health care provider explains patient education material to a patient focusing on health literacy

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The importance of health literacy

  • The cost of low health literacy increases US health care costs by $106 to $236 billion a year.
  • Only 12% of US adults are health literate.
  • Health education is often communicated at the 12th grade reading level but the average American reads at an 8th grade level.

To stay healthy, it’s important to understand health information to help you prevent and manage your health. But, did you know that nearly half of all American adults lack health literacy? Studies show that the reading grade level of written patient materials is too high. Health education is often communicated at the 12th grade reading level, while the average American reads at an 8th grade level. This is important because communication is a two-way street. Good health literacy requires an empowered patient and an empowering provider.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is:

  • a patient’s ability to obtain, understand and act on health information
  • the ability of health care providers and health care systems to communicate clearly, educate about health and empower patients.

Why using plain language matters

A main focus of health literacy is the use of plain language. Ideas should be organized into short, succinct sentences and paragraphs. It applies to written content, videos, hospital and clinic signage, and in-person conversations with your health care provider.
Plain language is sometimes referred to as “living room language.” Plain language also applies to how printed documents appear to the reader. The way pictures, simple diagrams and how information is arranged on the page can help make information easier to read and understand.

Plain language:

  • uses common, everyday words
  • uses active verbs (For example: “Talk with your provider if you have questions” is active, while “You will be asked questions about your health” is passive.)
  • replaces or defines jargon, and complex terms and words
  • uses examples, photos, drawings and infographics.

Who is at greatest risk for having low health literacy?

While any of us can struggle to understand health information at any point, the people at greatest risk for having low health literacy are:

  • older adults
  • people with chronic illness
  • immigrants and low-income adults.

People with low health literacy are more likely to:

  • have more visits to an Emergency Room
  • have more hospital stays
  • have trouble following treatment plans
  • have higher death rates
  • have more medicine errors.

How to improve health literacy

Allina Health works hard to make sure our patient education materials follow the best practices for health literacy. Our health care providers also focus on using language and conversation that helps patients understand important health information. We do this by:

  • using plain language. (We try to speak and write in “living room” language)
  • stating information clearly and simply
  • asking questions of patients to check their understanding
  • simplifying numbers (We try to not make our patients do the math)
  • using shared decision making aids. (These aids help health care providers talk with patients and make decisions together.)

The bottom line: Using plain language keeps our patients’ needs in mind at all times. It organizes and filters content in a way that makes sense to readers and leaves out unnecessary details.


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