Health Literacy: a key to your health outcome

October 1, 2012

Do you have trouble understanding information you get from doctors, hospitals or clinics? You’re not alone.

Approximately 80 million U.S. adults have limited health literacy – the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health care information. Your level of health literacy is important because it contributes to your ability to make good health care decisions.

Josie R. Williams, M.D., founding director of the TAMHSC-Rural and Community Health Institute

“Research proves people with poor health literacy are at risk for poor health outcomes,” says Josie R. Williams, M.D., associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) and founding director of the TAMHSC-Rural and Community Health Institute.

Health care literacy data shows that people with poor health literacy have lower basic health knowledge, more hospitalizations and poorer outcomes than those who understand the directions they are given. This is true particularly of some subgroups with low health literacy levels such as the poor, elderly, low educational levels, minorities and adults with other first languages.

Some patients are often intimidated or ashamed of their inability to read well enough to understand the information given them. However, even well-educated individuals may have difficulty understanding common health care forms. For example, surgical consent forms and health privacy information can be highly complicated and legal. Most patients don’t even attempt to read the small and complex printed information.

Often embarrassed, some patients won’t talk about their difficulty in reading or comprehending. Some even hide their confusion from their closest family and friends. In fact, at least one well-known health care literacy advocate admits she didn’t know the “surgery to take care of the problem was to be a hysterectomy.” She felt violated and ashamed that she didn’t ask more questions.

“It is imperative for health care professionals and families to be sure the patient understands how to properly care for themselves,” says Dr. Williams, former president of the Texas Medical Association. “Luckily, information and training is available so health care professionals can better understand their patients’ needs, such as services through the Rural and Community Health Institute or the ‘ASK ME 3’ program.”

The results from improved health literacy can be dramatic. A hospital updated patient communication with illustrations of the preparation directions and a new waiting room signage system. Missed or late outpatient testing and procedures dramatically improved. One physician reworded a standardized form letter, utilized more white space and an explicit map with directions to the office. This simple change decreased his clinic’s “no-shows” for office appointments by 20 percent.

“Patients and families, don’t be afraid to ask for help and repeat instructions,” Dr. Williams says. “Please ask questions or go to a professional who takes time to make sure you understand everything. It’s key so you can make good decisions and care for yourself.”

Prepare yourself by learning the “The 10 Questions You Should Know” or have family members offer their own questions.

Patient resources:

1. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Consumer and Patients,

2. healthfinder®,

This website links to many organizations carefully selected to provide accurate, helpful information to consumers and their families.

— Blair Williamson