Health Literacy for All

Lisa Calderwood, MA
Senior Medical Writer  


I was using the term “adenopathy” for a newsletter I was writing for a clinical trial and went online to Merriam-Webster for a quick check of spelling and pronunciation. (Adenopathy, by the way, is an enlargement of glandular tissue, such as lymph nodes.) On the website, there is an invitation from the editors for users to submit a comment about why they wanted to look up the word they entered. I did a quick scan of the top 10 responses and calculated that 80% of people looking up the term adenopathy went to the online dictionary because they saw the term in their doctor’s summary or in a report for a CT or MRI scan and had no idea what it meant.

Whether patients are too embarrassed to ask their doctor questions or to simply say they don’t understand written instructions, or whether doctors are too busy to engage in a helpful conversation or don’t have the right educational tools, there is too often a significant gap in the amount and quality of health information provided to patients or caregivers.

There can be serious health ramifications when directions are unclear or culturally insensitive. According to an anecdote shared in an article in American Medical News (Health literacy: help your patients understand directions), a Spanish-speaking patient, when given the instructions to take his blood pressure medicine once a day, misinterpreted the word “once” to mean “eleven,” which is what “once” means in Spanish. Needless to say, he was hospitalized after taking 11 doses each of his diuretic and beta blocker. While that may be an extreme example, it’s not an unlikely scenario.

So it’s not uncommon for patients to turn to online resources to interpret medical terms and learn about their conditions, such as those patients researching adenopathy. In fact, 72% of internet users say they look online for health information. As long as consumers or patients select reliable online resources, or ask their doctor to steer them to the best websites, the Internet can be a valuable place to find answers to health and medical questions. (See Tracking Trends in Healthcare: Looking for Accuracy: Helping Patients Navigate Online Health Resources)

Still, when patients rely primarily on Web-based health information, a few questions emerge:

  • Are healthcare practitioners (HCPs) remiss in providing ample education to patients about diseases, chronic conditions, test results, or related therapies?
  • Is the information they provide beyond the scope of understanding of most patients?
  • What kinds of resources would help HCPs do a better job at teaching patients and, in turn, help them be better managers of their health?

The most effective solutions to these questions are grounded in health literacy best practices, such as the guiding CARE™ principles developed by Artcraft Health. Patient education—whether digital or print—that is clear, actionable, relevant, and engaging promotes adherence, compliance, and greater success in preventative healthcare. Every kind of health communications can be enhanced when these principles are kept top-of-mind. In a patient-centric healthcare system, it’s time for health literacy to be the right of all patients.