Three Ways to Fight Patient Illiteracy

An alarming number of Americans struggle to understand healthcare information

With over 80 percent of people looking online for healthcare information and many getting misinformation, how can doctors, nurses and healthcare administrators combat healthcare illiteracy in the United States? Ron Harman King CEO of Vanguard Communications explains three ways to better help patients understand health information. 

Watch the video on MedPage Today

Video transcript

Are you one of those physicians who complain about patient misinformation from the internet? Whenever I hear this complaint and ask the complainer what he or she is doing about it, the response is typically the same: some combination of silence, a blank stare and fumbling for an answer.

7 out of 8 American adults are healthcare illiterate

Well, I’m very happily here to offer ideas for answers. But first, let’s review some eye-opening data about patient healthcare literacy. A landmark study more than 10 years ago by the Institute of Medicine found that about one-third of American adults struggle to understand and act on healthcare information. If you don’t find this statistic alarming, let me provide another: an older study by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy.

If this finding is accurate, it means that 7 of 8 adults need anywhere from some to a whole bunch of help understanding the basics of their health conditions, their therapeutic options and sometimes even how to follow basic medication instructions. And that may be true even for people with advanced degrees and very strong literacy skills.

As the Institute of Medicine said in its healthcare literacy report, “A science teacher may not understand information … about a brain function test. An accountant may not know when to get a mammogram … [and] a surgeon may have trouble helping a family member with Medicare forms.” A surgeon, for crying out loud!

The consequences of misunderstanding can be grave, and that’s an intended pun. Patients with below-basic literacy are 42 percent more likely to report their health as poor and 28 percent more likely to lack health insurance, according to the Department of Education study.

Advancements in medical technology

The problem will only get worse with time. Medical technology is advancing at a rate no one can stay abreast of. Take the field of genomics and genetic testing. I was quite pleased to see Dr. Reed Tuckson, former health commissioner of the District of Columbia, recently advocate on this very website for more physician education in genetics.

I heartily agree and support Dr. Tuckson. Nothing holds more promise for life-saving and life-enhancing breakthroughs than genetic research. And nothing evidently frightens the public more than its potential for abuse. Thankfully, the consumer press often does an admirable job of allaying public fears and cheerleading for scientific progress.

Three ways to help your patients become healthcare literate

So, if the news media can do its part in addressing healthcare illiteracy, so can you. Here are three ways.

First, don’t just get mad at the internet. Instead, use it to your advantage. Like it or not, the internet is where millions already go every day for health information. Don’t fight ’em. Join ’em.

Identify patient-oriented websites you personally trust and give your patients a photocopied list. Better yet, put links to them on your own practice’s website. I suggest organizing the list by topic, depending on your specialty. Think in terms of broad health objectives. For example, headings in primary care might include tips on achieving longevity, controlling body weight, keeping cholesterol down, and eating healthfully.

For guidelines on choosing specific website sources, I lean towards respected institutions in consumer health information, such as the Centers for Disease Control, Medline Plus, the American Heart Association, and If you’re truly stumped at where to begin, try Googling the term “health websites.”

Second, write and post a few original pages of popular health information on the website of your own practice. Be very careful not to copy and paste from other websites. Google may penalize you by de-listing your website, meaning it won’t show in search engines. Instead, generate your own fresh website content on the topics you most often get patient questions about.

Frankly, I strongly recommend hiring a freelance journalist or other professional writer for this task, preferably one with science writing experience. For a cost ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, a seasoned pro can write far more quickly and understandably for the lay audience than the average physician. The benefits should more than cover the expense. For example, you can accumulate enormous clinical time savings over the long haul by referring the most common patient questions to your website. You can also reap a bonus from hiring an experienced writer with knowledge of search engine optimization, which will place your website higher in search engines and likely generate new patients.

Third, try a deep dive into the social media pool. Consider this: for the medical practices I consult with coast to coast, Facebook more than any other website drives more visitors to their own practice websites. Be forewarned, though: To do social media right in healthcare, you’ve got to commit to both frequent and useful postings. You must use it as an educational tool and not a promotional device. Talk about the patient, and his or her needs, and not yourself.

And you should post several times a month, if not more, always linking posts to longer internet articles, preferably on your website. Most provider groups wisely hire out social media posting to freelancers, specialty marketing firms or hire someone in-house to handle the work. It can be quite affordable, especially for larger groups, sometimes costing less than the monthly clinic utility bill.

The importance of investing in patient education

No doubt about it, providing reliable, actionable patient information can be time, and resource, consuming. But so can correcting patient misinformation. Moreover, the explosion of online healthcare information stands to make the job only bigger for physicians and provider groups. Thus, I view the issue in the same light as preventative medicine. In other words, an ounce of educational prevention may well spare you a pound of frustration.


Ready to take your practice to the next level?

Vanguard Communication’s MedMarketLink program guarantees 15-30% practice growth in the first year, or we’ll work for free.

MedMarketLink Program Contact us