When people think patient safety, health literacy probably isn’t the first thing that comes to their mind. Yet, clear communication plays an essential role in preventing patient harm. For this reason, addressing health literacy has become a primary objective for our team.

Here are some common questions about health literacy and why it’s a crucial part of our health care system.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.1

What are some red flags that may indicate low health literacy?

You cannot simply look at a person and determine if they are health literate and some people do a pretty good job covering up their inability to read. But there are particular groups of patients who are more likely to have challenges with health literacy compared to others. For instance, the elderly and those who did not complete high school are more likely to have challenges with health literacy. Also, even well-educated people may not understand health care or be too stressed from a diagnosis or unplanned illness to understand. It’s always best to assume all patients have some difficulty of understanding.

What are some examples where health care professionals inadequately communicate important information to patients?

I’m sure many of us have walked into a conversation or started a new career and had no idea what acronyms or industry terms meant. The same thing applies in health care. Inadequate medication directions, complex graphs, small print font ,and complex forms can all lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

What actions should be taken to reduce the chance of patients misinterpreting health information?

It all comes down to your communication methods. Well-written patient materials, such as forms and educational information, that are appropriate for everyone is key. Here are some starter tips to consider when enhancing your communication techniques:

  • Bold and highlight important information
  • Use plain, non-medical jargon
  • Speak clearly and at a moderate pace
  • Limit instruction to 3-5 key points
  • Repeat the key points
  • Use illustrations if necessary

Finally, it is always vital to provide a non-threatening environment where patients feel comfortable to speak up and ask questions.

What safeguards are in place or should be in place to ensure information is clearly communicated and accurately understood?

It’s crucial that your patient understands what you are saying. To ensure they comprehend what you are communicating, we suggest using the teach back method. The teach-back method is a way of checking understanding by asking patients to state in their own words what they need to know or do about their health. It is a way to confirm that you have explained things in a manner your patients understand and reteach as needed. 2

Please see our infographic below to learn the consequences and economic impact of low health literacy. 

For additional information about health literacy, check out our programs: What About Mom, WebLitLegit, C.L.A.S. Training, and Abating Maternal Mortality.

Feel free to reach out to our team for assistance or questions regarding health literacy.


1. S.C. Ratzan and R.M. Parker. Introduction, National Library of Medicine Current Bibliographies in Medicine: Health Literacy. (Bethesda, MD: 2000). 

2. Internet Citation: Use the Teach-Back Method: Tool #5. Content last reviewed March 2020. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. https://www.ahrq.gov/health-literacy/quality-resources/tools/literacy-toolkit/healthlittoolkit2-tool5.html