How Nurses Can Improve Health Literacy

How Nurses Can Improve Health Literacy(2)

By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, Contributor

October marks Health Literacy Awareness Month, and nurses play a critical role in helping to promote its overall goal—which is to build a world where all individuals have access to quality health outcomes.

The concept of health literacy (HL) has been around for decades, and the definition continues to evolve and grow, explained Helen Osborne, MEd, OTR/L, president of Health Literacy Consulting, producer and host of the podcast series Health Literacy Out Loud, and founder of Health Literacy Month.

“My functional definition is: Health literacy happens when providers, or anyone on the communicating end of health information, and patients, anyone on the receiving end of communication, truly understand one another. It’s really that interaction, the alignment and the outcome.”

Despite ongoing change and evolving applications, there has been continual growth of awareness about the importance of health literacy over the years. Today’s clinicians, patients and others are working in tandem to ensure that all people truly understand and digest the healthcare information they are provided with on a day-to-day basis.

“Advocates everywhere are speaking with a collective, shared voice and we get more attention when we speak together,” Osborne said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Health literacy is a central focus of Healthy People 2030. One of the initiative’s overarching goals demonstrates this focus: ‘Eliminate health disparities, achieve health equity, and attain health literacy to improve the health and well-being of all.’”

Working directly on the frontlines of healthcare, nurses are uniquely positioned to help every patient be heard, be well-informed, and to engage in his or her care plan and realize better outcomes.

Nurses, patient communication and health literacy

Nurses are able to improve patient communication by confirming each person fully understands presented health information, allowing space for questions, showing empathy and ensuring proper application of actionable information.

The Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research (AHQR) provides a variety of health literacy resources to help providers and patients achieve these goals. Nurses who work to gain deeper knowledge of the principles of health literacy and offer more credible and consistent information will find even more success in their patient encounters.

“At one time or another, we can all struggle to understand health information -- it’s a universal phenomenon,” Osborne said.

By relating to patients and realizing when there are gaps in their understanding, nurses can help them access and make use of health information for the best results.

“Nurses can create a welcoming and supportive environment, one in which people can comfortably think, question and disagree,” Osborne explained. “A large part of that is encouraging questions from patients, which is a way to personalize information.”

Providers also need to stop and listen to their patients in order to confirm understanding. Using plain language and explaining complex terminology are two more ways they can help increase understanding and engage patients in their care.


“If nurses can only do one thing, the key would be to confirm understanding. So that once they teach, show or explain something, make sure the person really understands. It’s doing something that is also referred to as ‘teach back.’”

Nurses can promote health literacy in their community through actions such as posting on social media using the Institute for Healthcare Advancement’s (IHA’s) suggested posts and newsletter blurbs. A selection of helpful resources can be found in their online toolkit.

Advocate for health literacy on the road

Are you a nurse who is ready to promote better patient communication and health outcomes? If so, this may be the time to take your nursing career on the road. As a travel nurse with Onward Healthcare, you’ll have the ability to help improve patient care and health understanding across the country.

“Appreciate that you have both a great honor but a great responsibility -- helping communicate health messages in a way that people can really understand and act on. It’s more than finding a simpler word, it’s really appreciating what it’s like for the other person,” Osborne concluded.

Related:
Nursing Tips for Educating Patients on Complex Medical Conditions

Onward Healthcare has a thousands of travel nursing jobs across the U.S. Apply today to start working with one of our friendly recruiters.

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