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Low Health Literacy, High Health Costs

Anna Webster, for HealthLeaders Media, August 3, 2011

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality provides a thorough health literacy toolkit on its website. I've summarized some of the key takeaways in these four steps:

1. Educate. If you're reading this article right now, you are already educating yourself on the topic of health literacy. Check out this video from the ACP Foundation for further information and share with staff to obtain leadership buy-in.

After educating staff, it is time to educate the patient. Physicians can be reminded to encourage the patient to ask questions and use the “teach back” method of asking the patient to repeat what they have learned from their visit. Education can also come from posters and signage encouraging patients to speak up or ask how to take their medicine.

2. Collaborate. Put together a team in charge of evaluating and setting standards to improve health literacy across the organization. It's important that members of the group come from different departments.

3. Assess. Encourage physicians and staff to take a 30 minute self-assessment to see where they rank on communication and discuss the answers in a follow up session. Know where your organization’s strengths and weaknesses are in terms of communication.

4. Build goals. Now that you’ve assessed your organization’s health literacy weaknesses, set up ways to measure improved outcomes. Example: Set up systems to remind patients to attend cancer screenings over the next six months and record if an increased number of patients attend the free screening.

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