Health literacy principles in telehealth

The average person doesn’t tell their doctor they have tinnitus when their ears are ringing. And they don’t use words like “otolaryngologist” or “audiologist.” So, how can health care systems overcome problems with patient understanding? This is a real-life problem, but improving health literacy is a promising solution.

According to the Institute of Medicine, health literacy is “the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information.” Health literacy involves a person’s general literacy – the ability to read, write and understand written text. It’s also important to consider culture and experience in the health care system.

When patients don’t understand basic health information, it can lead to costly and dangerous situations. To assess those who may encounter challenges, the National Center for Education Statistics performs a National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) every 10 years. In a time where telehealth and technology are becoming a big part of health care, it’s time to find new ways to address limited literacy.

Although more than half of adult patients have adequate health literacy, many patients struggle to understand health care. In a telehealth encounter, patients may not understand basic follow-up questions. They can also have trouble describing symptoms or understanding a doctor’s instructions. Consider these facts from the NAAL study:

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Health literacy, NAAL, National Assessment of Adult Literacy, Telehealth


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