Sunday, March 31, 2013

Achieving High Health Literacy Is a Job for Nurses

By E'Louise Ondash, RN

It’s one thing to get a diagnosis; it’s another thing to understand what it means and what to do about it.

Seventy-seven million people – about half the population in the United States – don’t have the necessary skills to achieve this understanding and to make good decisions about their health, according to a 2012 report from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

The paper, “Ten Attributes of Health Literate Health Care Organizations,” explores the programs, practices, attitudes and attributes of organizations that do it right – that is, they foster health literacy and more.

Truly health-literate organizations must do more than just initiate a few projects that address health literacy, the scientists write. They must make health literacy an organizational value.

What are the costs of low health literacy?

They include higher rates of serious medication errors; more ER visits and hospitalizations; gaps in preventive care; increased likelihood of dying; and even poorer health outcomes for the children of low-literacy parents.

None of the above consequences are a good thing―at any time―but especially in this cost-conscious environment.

Helping consumers and patients achieve high health literacy is a huge challenge in today’s confusing health care landscape. With so much information available via the internet, broadcast media, and print advertising and marketing, even the fairly savvy patient can become overwhelmed. And for those who face barriers to obtaining information and understanding it, today’s health care environment can be downright daunting.

All of this, though, makes for a perfect opportunity for nurses. We are educators by profession; we know how to motivate, communicate with and involve consumers, clients and patients.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to creating organizations that promote health literacy. This report, issued by the Institute of Medicine, nicely summarizes all that is needed to instigate, increase and improve health literacy. Some of the measures that promote health literacy within health care organizations include:

• Making health literacy a priority at every level.

• Measuring health literacy.

• Understanding the specific needs of the populations that the organization serves.

• Avoiding stigmatizing those who lack literacy.

• Providing easy access to information.

• Providing help in navigating the system.

• Distributing easy-to-understand information via print, audiovisual and social media.

• Using proven education techniques such as teach-back.

• Training health care workers in communication techniques.

• Clarifying what insurance covers and for what services patients are responsible.

For more details, you can read the full report.

How does your organization or employer promote health literacy?

Do you have other ideas? What can nurses do individually to enhance patients’ health literacy?

Tell us about it.

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