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Health literacy key for better health, better care

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AFNS) -- Just as literacy in reading and writing is critical to processing information in day-to-day life, health care has its own component of literacy. Health literacy is the capacity of individuals to obtain, process and understand health information and services in order to make informed decisions about their health.

Many factors can determine a person’s health literacy. Familiarity with medical terms or having an understanding of human body functions can affect a person’s ability to fully comprehend health information. Patients often find themselves in positions to interpret numbers or even take risks to make a health care decision. Some have complex medical conditions that require intricate self-care. Patients who are diagnosed with a serious illness could be scared or confused, severely hampering their ability to understand their care.

At the core of health literacy is communication between patients and their health care providers. In order to make the best decisions about their health, patients need clear information they can understand. Through patient-centered care, the Air Force is working to educate health professionals to become better communicators.

“Health literacy depends on the complexity of information and tasks a patient is required to perform,” said Lt. Col. Laura Lien, the chief nurse of the 628th Medical Group. “Health literacy spans the entire encounter within a military treatment facility from the minute a patient walks in the door.”

Easy-to-read signage, a well-thought-out floor plan and careful furniture placement can enhance the patient experience.

“Health literacy involves getting patients into an environment where they know where to go and understand the whole process of health care. It’s about engaging patients in their own health care,” Lien said.

Only 12 percent of U.S. adults are proficient in health literacy, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This leaves 88 percent of adults with limited health literacy, lacking adequate skills to get through the health care system.

Health care providers rely on health literacy to help individuals find appropriate health information and services, communicate about patients’ health, process patients’ needs and requests, and determine the best health care options to help patients manage their health.

“When patients are anxious or overwhelmed it does not matter how smart they are; this affects a person’s ability to process information,” Lien said. For example, once a provider delivers a significant life-changing diagnosis, the patient tends to focus on digesting that critical information and stops processing a lot of the information delivered after that point.

“It’s not what we tell our patients, but what our patients understand,” Lien added. Providers use the teach-back method during patient interactions. After explaining health information and services to a patient, providers will ask patients to communicate the same information back, to confirm their understanding.

With health literacy, providers are taking the universal precaution. “We don’t know who has limited health literacy skills,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Sapiera, the chief nurse of the 412th Medical Group. “We approach everyone as if they have limited health literacy.”

While providers are enhancing their skills to clearly communicate and engage with patients, patients are encouraged to ask more questions, gain better understanding of their health and partner with their health care team to make decisions about their care.

Sapiera explained the concept of a patient-centered health care team is similar to a football team. When asked who the quarterback of the health care team is, many will point to the physician. With Air Force trusted care and patient centeredness, there is a paradigm shift.

“The patient is the quarterback and we are there to support the patient,” Sapiera said. “We tell our patients, ‘It is your health and you are the quarterback of the team.’”

Lien added that health literacy plays into the culture of Air Force trusted care.

“We are helping patients build a relationship with their health care team so they can better understand health information and services,” Lien said. “This promotes patient safety and empowers patients to play an active role in the management of their own health.”

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