Give direction to health literacy

Proposal guides entire health system

During the time a document on plain language was being written at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, the national health literacy movement was under way.

Organizations that set standards for health care institutions as well as government agencies began to address issues of health literacy, such as clear communication. The focus was driven by patient safety. A patient who understands what is taught is more likely to adhere to treatment plans, take medication correctly, and follow instructions resulting in better health outcomes, explains Becky Smith, RN, MA, manager of the Section of Patient Education.

Patient satisfaction surveys at Mayo Clinic asked patients if health care providers used words and terms they could understand. The survey scores on this question showed room for improvement in provider communication. Therefore a document named "The Health Literacy Proposal" was written in the Section of Patient Education to reinforce to leadership within Mayo Clinic the importance of health literacy and its connection with patient education. The document, along with the "Case for Plain Language," was unanimously endorsed by leadership, which made health literacy a priority at Mayo Clinic.

The proposal recommends that a culture of health literacy awareness be enhanced at Mayo Clinic and that access to resources for patients and providers throughout the system be improved. Based on national adult health literacy studies, only 13% of the population can easily obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Also, increased self-care demands on patients have not been matched by the adoption of communication techniques that ensure understanding and optimize patient safety. These two areas have become a focus of the Section of Patient Education at Mayo Clinic, says Smith.

"The issue of health literacy is so big we didn't know where to start. Start somewhere and take the first step. Then build on that," advises Smith. "Developing your case is an effective place to begin."