October is National Health Literacy Month – an important reminder to reflect on our roles in helping every patient and consumer understand the health options before them. Whether you provide care or promote those who do, communicating in ways that are clear for everyone can make a very healthy difference.
Because healthcare options are typically limited in rural areas, navigating patients through disjointed care delivery across varying geographies, locations and providers needs even more emphasis. Rural health patients often have fewer convenient, community-based options for assistance in making informed health decisions. That means health literacy efforts are among the many challenges that intensify for rural health providers, who already do so much with such limited resources.
Having spent so much of my career in marketing and communications for rural and community hospitals, I’ve seen the difference it makes when we eliminate medical jargon, increase access to supportive technologies, and meet patients where they are with information that’s easy to absorb and retain. Below are three best practices for improving health literacy efforts within your organization:
1. Evaluate health information materials.
In collaboration with your Patient and Family Advisory Council or Patient Advocate team, review materials with a keen eye toward understanding and comprehension at a seventh-grade literacy level (maximum) to meet almost every education level. When empowered with clear, easy-to-follow directions, patients and families are better able to partner in their care decisions, leading to better health outcomes.
Also, be mindful of language barriers in written and verbal communication. Many state hospital associations can connect their members to skilled, easily accessible interpreters. Here’s one such example from the Kansas Hospital Association.
2. Be a voice that guides people to the right information.
If residential broadband is slow but high-speed internet access is available for free at the local library, let people know. If your local library staff can reliably help people understand complex, evidence-based content – as they research cancer clinical trials, for example – let people know that, too. Does the library also have private rooms where a patient and/or family could have a telehealth appointment without worrying about slow internet issues? If so, spread the word.
Even better, go beyond making people aware of those resources by becoming part of those resources: Explore the possibility of coordinating educational programming with your local library to promote their services in assisting patients and/or families with their healthcare needs. These programs can include a physician-led educational series for seniors or an educational center that consolidates all healthcare resources in one space.
Consider hosting onsite educational sessions for patients with serious and/or chronic conditions like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer and more. Physician or clinical leaders from your hospital can provide interactive education – a great way to strengthen the connection between your providers and patients while helping people make more informed and personalized health decisions.
3. Expand the healing power of healthcare workers toward improved understanding.
Physicians and nurses are often regarded as highly trustworthy and enormously compassionate. Encourage all healthcare workers, providers and ancillary staff (scheduling, billing, medical records and beyond) to approach every patient as if s/he is at risk of not understanding the diagnosis and how best to manage symptoms.
Applying the concept of universal precautions – which means simplifying how you speak and write, then confirming the patient’s comprehension – lowers the risk of miscommunication. When you combine health literacy efforts with the compassion that healthcare workers deliver daily, you will effectively deliver a higher level of care and help transform uncertainty into informed decisions for your patients.
Looking for more information about health literacy? Here are two great places to start:
- Introduction to Health Literacy – Rural Health Information Hub
- The Nurse’s Guide To Health Literacy – NurseJournal
At Dobies Health Marketing, we are committed to advancing rural health. We understand the unique challenges and opportunities that rural hospitals face in delivering care, optimizing revenue, recruiting and retaining strong talent, and building healthy communities. Through dhmstudio+, we bring affordable, effective marketing solutions to make rural health organizations stronger. Interested in learning more? Contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
As Director, Rural Health Division, at Dobies Health Marketing, Amy Northrop manages client relationships and ensures marketing tactics always align with strategic objectives. A lifelong advocate for strengthening rural communities with better health, Amy’s career spans 30 years in hospital marketing, communications and physician relations.