Health literacy is the ability to read, process and understand healthcare information to make appropriate health decisions.1 Clear communication is essential in providing high-quality healthcare. If a patient does not understand their diagnosis or how to manage their condition, then successful healing and treatment is significantly impaired.

Health literacy goes beyond reading to include writing, calculating, listening, speaking, and making sense of abstract concepts. Variables such as socioeconomic status, culture, language, education, beliefs, and behaviors all impact health literacy and can add barriers to patient care. Patients with inadequate health literacy often feel shameful and might not admit to having difficulty reading or understanding their condition, which can lead to a delay in accessing appropriate care.2

One patient enrolled in a study to assess encounters between healthcare providers and patients with low literacy scores describes her difficulty “…If there could be a person that could talk like us, and be kinder, and ask us if we can read, or offer to fill <the form> out, and with a smile, so we feel the person supports us…but if we see their hard faces, how could we ask for help to fill out the form?”2

Queen’s University psychology professor Dr Dean Tripp advises that healthcare providers use “living room language” when explaining concepts to patients. This involves speaking in plain language to avoid technical jargon, creating a safe environment where patients can speak openly, drawing pictures or providing other visual aids, and slowing down to assess the person’s level of understanding. The “teach back” method allows patients to explain back to the physician what was said, in their own language, to ensure full understanding. Dr Tripp says never to ask “do you understand?” as nine times out of ten patients will say yes even if they don’t.

As tempting as it is to evade personal responsibility – especially when it comes to health – it’s not all up to the professionals to change behavior in order to improve health literacy. There are several things you can do to empower yourself around your health and strengthen your own health literacy. The patient education program Ask Me 3TM was designed to promote communication between healthcare providers and patients in order to improve health outcomes.3 The program encourages patients to ask these three questions in every health care interaction:

1.  What is my main problem?

2.  What do I need to do?

3.  Why is it important for me to do this?

Health literacy is a vital component of healthcare and can empower individuals to take positive action regarding their own health and wellbeing.

Jenna Lange