Monday Medical: Better health literacy leads to better health equity |

Monday Medical: Better health literacy leads to better health equity

Mary Gay Broderick
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

If it feels as if you’ve forgotten much of what was discussed after a medical appointment, don’t worry — you’re not alone.

Studies show that patients can’t recall up to 75% of what they talked about with their doctor. And when a medical emergency, an emergency department visit or a life-altering diagnosis is thrown in the mix, it’s easy to see why patients sometimes come away with more questions than answers.

“Anyone walking into a physician’s office or hospital has the potential to misunderstand and to forget, so we need to adapt, meet people where they are and be attuned to what they need,” said Monique McCollum, RN and manager of health literacy at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

Health literacy is a coin with two sides: from a patient perspective, it means being able to find, understand and use information to make informed health-related decisions for themselves and others. From a provider standpoint, it means improved communication that leads to better health equity for all patients, cutting across gender, age and culture differences.

“Today’s health care environment is dynamic, creating a challenge for health care organizations, providers and patients alike,” McCollum said.

For example, on average, in one medical appointment, 17 topics will be discussed between a patient and provider including symptoms, nutrition and medication, and a provider will write two prescriptions.

When you add in other topics such as questions about future appointments, ongoing care management, health insurance issues and Medicare requirements, the level of confusion can deepen. Coordinating care between multiple physicians and caregivers can complicate things further.

Plain language = better understanding

McCollum pointed out that surveys show only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills, which is why the burden is on health care providers, clinics and hospitals to use “plain language” when they talk to patients.

“That’s not talking down. It’s not dumbing down. It’s talking clearly. It’s being concrete and precise so there is no ambiguity,” she said, likening it to “talking to your grandma sitting in your living room.”

“It’s creating relationships with a patient and understanding that specific dynamic of who the patient is and meeting them at that particular moment,” said McCollum.

What does that mean for health care institutions?

  • Providing clear instructions on medical websites regarding directions, parking, providers and insurance.
  • Placing helpful signage in and around clinics and hospitals.
  • Having helpful front-line staff who greet patients when they arrive.
  • Offering large-print brochures or other printed information.
  • Bridging language and cultural differences among patients.
  • Forging trusting relationships between patients and providers.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Over the years, the health literacy team at UCHealth has spent significant time editing written materials and training nurses and clinical staff about what health literacy is and what plain language is all about.

“Medical professionals and people in hospitals think they are talking in plain language, but what’s plain to us might not be plain to patients,” said McCollum. “Everyone has questions, so how can we explain things better? The burden should be on the health care provider and institution. Medical staff can make sure they too ask questions to ensure patients understand.”

Health literacy also means patients aren’t afraid to advocate for themselves when they’re with their provider. McCollum encourages patients to remember:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions – What is my diagnosis? What do I need to watch for? When do I need to come back?
  • You can say no to something.
  • You can get a second opinion.
  • Bring questions.
  • Bring an advocate with you, as major illnesses don’t just affect the patient.

“Ask questions to make sure you get what you need – it’s your right,” said McCollum. “It’s our responsibility to help you get the answers you need to make informed decisions around your health.”

Mary Gay Broderick writes for UCHealth. She can be reached at

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