HHS Launches National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy

Report Includes Numerous Recommendations for Docs

July 01, 2010 05:05 pm News Staff

Nearly nine out of 10 English-speaking adults in the United States have limited health literacy skills, which research has shown is associated with poor health outcomes. According to an HHS fact sheet(www.health.gov), these individuals are more likely than their health-literate counterparts to skip important preventive services, such as Pap smears, mammograms and routine immunizations. They also are more likely to have chronic conditions and to manage them poorly.

In response, HHS has issued a national action plan(www.health.gov) designed to make health information and services easier to understand and use. An HHS news release(www.hhs.gov) said the plan seeks to banish the jargon-filled language and complex explanations that often fill patient handouts, medical forms, health websites and recommendations to the public.

The plan includes the following seven goals and outlines strategies to achieve them:

  • develop and disseminate health and safety information that is accurate, accessible and actionable;
  • promote changes in the health care system that improve information, communication, informed decision-making and access to services;
  • incorporate accurate, standards-based and developmentally appropriate health and science information and curricula in child care and education through the university level;
  • support and expand local efforts to provide adult education, English language instruction and culturally and linguistically appropriate health information services in the community;
  • build partnerships with philanthropic, advocacy, academic, professional and other organizations and government agencies and work with them to develop guidance and change policies;
  • increase basic research and the development, implementation and evaluation of practices and interventions to improve health literacy; and
  • increase the dissemination and use of evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in the agency's news release that payers and physicians need to communicate clearly and make necessary changes to improve their interaction with consumers, patients and beneficiaries.

"Health literacy is needed to make health reform a reality," she said. "Without health information that makes sense to them, people can't access cost-effective, safe and high quality health services."

In the plan's foreword, Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, M.D., M.P.H., also stressed the need for health care professionals to "communicate in plain language."

"Without clear communication, we cannot expect people to adopt the healthy behaviors and recommendations that we champion," he said. "When people receive accurate, easy-to-use information about a health issue, they are better able to take action to protect and promote their health and wellness."

The plan recommends the following strategies for health care workers, encouraging them to collaborate with health information and library professionals:

  • Become familiar with information and literacy resources in your community and refer consumers to them.
  • Invite adult education classes to visit your health center and adult education students to speak at meetings and symposia.
  • Be a guest lecturer in an adult education class, serve as a curriculum adviser or otherwise collaborate with adult educators in your community.
  • Build partnerships with community organizations and local libraries to support health information needs in your community.

The plan also recommends multiple strategies health care and public health professionals can use to boost the effectiveness of health information communication:

  • Use different types of communication and tools with patients, including vetted pictorial illustrations, models and scorecards, to support written and oral communication with patients and their caregivers.
  • Use existing programs -- such as Questions Are the Answer(www.ahrq.gov) from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality -- to prepare patients and providers for visits and to structure their communication.
  • Use direct and developmentally appropriate communication with children to build better understanding of their health and health care.
  • Use proven methods of checking patient comprehension to ensure that patients understand information and risk and benefit trade-offs associated with treatments, procedures, tests and medical devices.
  • Ensure that pharmacists provide necessary counseling in language patients understand for dispensed medications as required by law.
  • Use patient-centered technologies at all stages of the process to support the information and decision-making needs of patients.
  • Use technology, including social media, to expand patients' access to the health care team and information.
  • Participate in ongoing training in health literacy, plain language, and culturally and linguistically appropriate services, and encourage colleagues and staff to be trained.
  • Advocate for requirements in continuing education for health care professionals who have been working in the field but have not participated in health literacy, cultural competency and language access training,
  • Create patient-friendly environments that facilitate communication by using architecture, images and language to reflect the community and its values.
  • Refer patients to public and medical libraries to get more information and assistance finding accurate and actionable information.
  • Refer patients to adult education and English language programs as indicated.

The HHS action plan supports the health literacy objectives being developed for Healthy People 2020(healthypeople.gov).