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Health literacy focuses on empowering patients to engage in their care

Image of Medical personnel, wearing a mask, inserting an IV into a patient. Michelle Pribble, Naval Medical Center San Diego's (NMCSD) lead nuclear medicine technologist, administers an IV to a patient before a positron emission tomography (PET) scan in the hospital's Nuclear Medicine Department. Active communication between patient and provider is a cornerstone of health literacy. (Photo by Navy Seaman Luke Cunningham.)

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Helping patients and caregivers understand the information they receive from their health care team reduces potential miscommunication and can improve the patient care experience. Although October is officially Health Literacy Month, it's always important to make sure patients and their caregivers understand health care information so they can make informed decisions about their care.

A common misconception is that health literacy is only the patient’s or caregiver’s responsibility. It’s not, explained Julie Kinn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the Defense Health Agency’s Connected Health Branch.

“It’s incumbent on the health care team to double-check that patients and their caregivers understand instructions, terminology, and important factors to help with decision-making,” she said.

Health literacy is the ability to understand health care information.

Care teams give a lot of information to patients and their caregivers, but if it’s difficult to understand, then it’s just wasting time for the beneficiaries and their providers, added Kinn. Health literacy covers how heath care teams share information with patients and their families, including instructions for how and when to take medication and how to manage symptoms. Implications can be far-reaching when patients or their families don’t understand their medical care, or when they seek preventive care, attempt to adopt healthy behaviors, complete insurance and medical forms, or manage chronic conditions, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration.  

“In more extreme examples, consider serious health care decisions,” said Kinn. “How can our patients and their families decide between options if the options are presented in a confusing way?”

In today’s busy health care environment, some providers may feel pressed for time, but patient-centered care requires health care professionals to take a more thoughtful approach. “Although internally we may feel a clock ticking, it’s important to demonstrate to patients and their families that we have time to answer their questions,” Kinn said.

Given what’s at stake, patients should not feel shy about understanding their own health care.

“Be assertive and take notes,” she said. “Although your health care team may be rushed, please ask when something is confusing or if a word is unfamiliar.”

Bottom line: All patients should feel empowered to take the time they need, in order to ensure they have the information to understand medical instructions given by their care team, and make informed decisions.

For patients willing to take the initiative to empower themselves with medical knowledge or information on their health, Kinn urges them to ask their doctor or nurse for specific recommendations on websites or resources instead of just searching online. “The Military Health System provides comprehensive information, but there are many other great resources online. Just make sure that it’s a trustworthy source written by experts,” she added.

“You are worth it!” Kinn emphasized.

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Last Updated: July 09, 2021

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