Assisting Patients with Limited Health Literacy

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female nurse talking with elderly female patient

When patients have inadequate health literacy, they have a difficult time understanding necessary information about personal care, which may put their health in jeopardy. As leaders, registered nurses (RNs) who earn advanced degrees are positioned to help patients overcome these kinds of barriers.

Studies show that health literacy issues are most prevalent among older adults, minorities, those with lower socioeconomic status and those who are part of medically underserved populations. They need assistance understanding and navigating healthcare systems to make informed decisions.

The American Academy of Nursing, in its journal Nursing Outlook, urged healthcare leaders to identify limited health literacy in patients and make adjustments as needed.

“Health literacy is fundamental to the success of every patient and health care professional interaction. In fact, patient safety cannot be assured without mitigating the negative effects of low health literacy and ineffective communication on patient care. A nursing focus on health literacy as an essential component of all patient care will enhance the provision of person-centered care, patient safety, and patient, population and system outcomes,” journal article authors said in, “Call for action: Nurses must play a critical role to enhance health literacy.”

As healthcare leaders, RNs who earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), including an online master’s in nursing, are poised to help underserved communities break the barriers to health literacy and better understand nursing terminology.

Health Literacy in the United States

According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), only about 12% of adults are proficient in healthcare literacy. The federal agency said about 9 out of 10 American adults lack the skills to manage their health to prevent illnesses and diseases. About 14% have below basic health literacy, meaning they are more likely to report their health as poor and usually lack health insurance.

HHS said health literacy depends on individual and systematic factors that include:

  • Communication skills
  • Knowledge of health topics
  • Culture
  • Demands of the healthcare system
  • Demands of the situation

HHS also said poor health literacy negatively impacts a patient’s ability to effectively navigate the healthcare system, including filling out complicated forms and locating providers and services. In addition, limited health literacy hurts an individual’s ability to perform tasks such as:

  • Sharing personal information, such as medical history, with doctors and nurses
  • Recognizing the relationship between lifestyle choices and health outcomes
  • Taking part in self-care activities and chronic-disease management
  • Understanding numerical concepts such as blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

“Health information can overwhelm even persons with advanced literacy skills. Medical science progresses rapidly. What people may have learned about health or biology during their school years often becomes outdated or forgotten, or it is incomplete. Moreover, health information provided in a stressful or unfamiliar situation is unlikely to be retained,” HHS said.

Instead, healthcare providers should develop tools to help patients who have limited healthcare literacy.

Assisting Patients with Limited Health Literacy

The first step for providers who want to improve patient health literacy is to focus on cultural competency, which is the ability to understand and communicate across cultural boundaries, including language, lifestyle and religious beliefs.

HHS also recommended that healthcare professionals follow other guidelines to assist patients with limited health literacy:

  • Use simple language and short phrases. Define technical terms in understandable wording.
  • Provide supplemental materials, such as videos and pictures.
  • Ask patients to repeat back medical instructions or demonstrate the procedure (called the teach-back method) to identify areas the patient does not understand.
  • Organize information in a logical manner with the most important points first.
  • Provide information in the patient’s primary language
  • Offer assistance in completing forms.

Assisting patients without causing them embarrassment or anxiety is essential, Cally Graniero, MSN, and Florence Graniero, RN, said in American Nurse magazine. Nursing education programs also should offer opportunities for RNs to learn about health literacy.

“Despite their extensive education, too many nurses don’t understand health literacy, so they don’t identify it in their patients,” the authors said in their article, “The vital role of health literacy.” “Including more information about this topic in basic nursing programs, and in continuing education opportunities, could help improve outcomes.”

Learning About Health Literacy in an MSN Program

RNs who earn an MSN degree have the opportunity to take on new roles, including as a family nurse practitioner (FNP), nurse educator or forensic nurse. In each of the functions, RNs have an opportunity to help patients who have limited health literacy.

At Duquesne University, MSN students learn about health literacy through coursework that stresses transcultural competence and care.

About Duquesne University’s Online MSN Degree Program

Duquesne University’s online MSN program provides RNs with opportunities to earn an advanced education in three areas: Forensic Nursing, Nurse Education and Faculty Roles, and Family (Individual Across the Lifespan) Nurse Practitioner.

Duquesne University also offers an online Post-Master’s Certificate in forensic nursing for RNs who already have an MSN. The flexible online coursework allows RNs to continue their career and family commitments while earning an advanced degree.

For more information about the programs, contact Duquesne University today.



Health Literacy: HRSA

Call for action: Nurses must play a critical role to enhance health literacy: Nursing Outlook

Quick Guide to Health Literacy: HHS

The vital role of health literacy: American Nurse