Featured Resource: Communicating With Patients and Families: Developing Clear Written Information
Web-based module highlighting ways to make your written information more readable
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The American Medical Association Foundation defines health literacy as:
"the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions and follow instructions for treatment."
Health literacy is not restricted to only a person's ability to read and write, however, and does not apply only to the written word. Other factors that play a role in how well someone understands health information that they are told, see, hear, or read include:
If a person also has a communication disorder, difficulties with processing and using health information can only increase.
It may be helpful to think in terms of plain language, which is defined by the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion as a message "in which people can find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding." Again, the concept of plain language is not restricted solely to the written word but to all forms of communication.
Being able to understand health information and make decisions from that information is vital to a person's well-being. Studies have shown a link between low literacy and poor health outcomes. For example:
Results of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) were released in 2003. The NAAL looked at adult skills in the following areas:
For each category, a person's skills were determined to be below basic (only simple and concrete literacy activities), basic (everyday literacy activities), intermediate (moderately challenging activities), or proficient (complex activities).
Key findings from the NAAL include:
The NAAL also included a health literacy component that looked at a person's ability to read and understand health information. Results indicated the following:
From: The Health Literacy of America's Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy [PDF]
An important point to keep in mind, however, is that even people with proficient literacy skills appreciate receiving information that is clear and concise. This is particularly true for health information, which often has an emotional component related to the well-being of the person or loved one. Think of it this way—a person who can easily read and understand the warning label on a bottle of aspirin in the drug store may have significant difficulty reading a brochure handed to them in a doctor's office after being told they had diabetes or needed surgery. Everyone can benefit from clear information.
As specialists in human communication, SLPs and audiologists can provide insight into how to communicate complex messages to individuals who have limited literacy skills or understanding. Simply being an SLP or audiologist is not enough, however, to be competent at developing health literate/plain language messages. Developing such information is not as easy as it seems and requires input from various stakeholders and audiences. The first step is to learn more about health literacy and take advantage of online tutorials about developing plain language materials and messages. ASHA has developed a resource list with links to relevant articles, websites, and tutorials to help you get started.
ASHA's vision, "Making effective communication, a human right, accessible and achievable for all" speaks to a commitment to consumers of speech, language, and hearing services. ASHA provides resources about communication and related disorders for the public in a variety of formats, including brochures, articles, radio and TV public service announcements, and Web-based information. Work is underway to ensure that consumer messages incorporate health literacy principles. In addition, ASHA is working to educate members about health literacy so that messages about the work of SLPs and audiologists can be understood and acted upon by the widest audience possible.
There are many publications, online tutorials, and other materials available that describe how to develop materials and messages that will reach the widest audience possible. You are strongly encouraged to use these resources as you develop information for the public. The following summarizes some basic points about communicating health messages.
(adapted from Health literacy and patient safety: Help patients understand)
See also: ASHA's Health Literacy Resources.