Health Literacy Can Significantly Improve Care

October is Health Literacy Month, a time for organizations to help promote the importance of understandable health information. Healthcare terms and acronyms can be confusing for patients. Approximately 40 million adults in the U.S. are illiterate, and one in five adults read at or below the 5th grade level. Most healthcare materials are written at the 10th grade level or above.

I asked a provider what problems they encountered regarding health literacy— the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. The provider responded that many patients simply don’t understand the directions or cannot read medication labels.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has developed two tools to measure a key aspect of health literacy—individuals’ reading comprehension in a medical context. These tools can be used for research, clinical or program planning purposes.

The Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine – Short Form (REALM-SF) is a 7-item word recognition test to provide clinicians with a valid, quick assessment of patient health literacy. The REALM-SF has been validated and field-tested in diverse research settings and works well with the 66-item REALM instrument in terms of grade-level assignments.

Seven words – menopause, antibiotics, exercise, jaundice, rectal, anemia and behavior – help the provider understand the patient’s level of health literacy.

The test demonstrates both health literacy and overall literacy, with four scored ranges, demonstrating grade-level equivalents and the ability to read and follow patient education materials.

It is more difficult to improve the quality of healthcare if patients don’t understand diagnoses or directions. Let’s commit to improved communication by assessing patients for overall health literacy. Then move forward with a plan for improved health in a way they understand.

Learn more about how atom Alliance is working with healthcare providers in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee to improve healthcare.

Janet Pollock, BA, Qsource Community Manager

Janet is the Community Manager for Qsource, the Kentucky Quality Improvement Network-Quality Improvement Organization (QIN-QIO) and atom Alliance member. Her QIO work includes years of community collaboration in provider initiatives including nursing homes, pharmacy, hospitals, care transition communities and patient-centered care. Her goal is to promote individualizing care and processes to improve healthcare culture for patients, families and staff of nursing homes, hospitals and healthcare organizations. Janet has also served as a long-term care ombudsman and coordinator with the State Health Insurance Program (SHIP), presenting at community, civic and provider meetings on various health care promotion and disease prevention topics.