Helping Patients Who Have Low Literacy Skills: Introduction

Did you know that half of the patients and families you teach every day won’t be able to understand many of your written teaching materials? The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) and the American Hospital Association’s Patients‘ Bill of Rights require that patients have current information about their diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis in terms that patients and families can understand. JCAHO Patient and Family Education Standards specify that health care professionals consider their patient’s literacy, educational level, and language in providing health care instruction. Health organizations are now scored on how well their patients understand the safe and effective use of medications and medical equipment, potential food-drug interactions, and when and how to obtain further treatment. Patients are also being discharged home sicker and quicker than in the past, and patients and families are expected to assume more responsibility for health care. Therefore, they must be able to read and understand the health care information we provide them.

However, literacy experts tell us that many of our written patient teaching materials don’t match our patients reading abilities. Patients struggle to understand discharge instructions, consent forms, handouts, and labels on prescription and over-the-counter medications. Many cannot understand important health-related letters or medical forms. Failure to understand directions may lead to missed appointments, noncompliance, and in some cases, disability and death.

Designing low literacy materials