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Nursing, as defined by the World Health Organization, encompasses care for people of all ages, families, groups, and communities, sick or well and in all types of settings. Nursing includes health promotion, illness prevention, and care of the ill. Regardless of your nursing role, or type of patient population you care for, health literacy is an essential competence necessary to effectively communicate and truly provide person-centered care. Health literacy is a precursor to health and considered a social determinant of health due to its influence upon health outcomes. It also includes engaging and empowering patients to access services and act upon health information to make informed decisions.

Early definitions of health literacy primarily focused on the skills or deficits of individuals when obtaining, processing, or understanding basic health information and services. The term has continued to evolve to reflect the complex, dynamic, multidimensional context-related components of health literacy. And while nurses have such a vital role in the promotion of health literacy, there is often a lack of understanding that health literacy is much more than the reading level of patient education material.

Nurses have a vital role in partnering with the 88% of the U.S. population that are not having their health care needs met.  Nurses can make a difference beginning today!

Begin by checking out the 5 basic health literacy strategies every nurse should know.

1. Promote a shame-free environment.

Health literacy is the foundation to a successful nurse-patient interaction and necessary to promote patient safety. Writing all patient forms in plain language, providing assistance with paperwork, offering free interpretation services, and involving members of your community when designing materials or programs will assist with promoting a shame-free environment.

2. Use a health literacy universal precautions approach.

Always assume that everyone might experience difficulty understanding health information or navigating the complex health care environment.  Even a well educated patient can have difficulty understanding the medical information provided.

3. Speak in plain language.

Plain language or “living room language” is beneficial for everyone! Using “everyday” words rather than medical jargon will allow you to meet your patients where they are and help clearly explain more involved concepts.

4. Confirm understanding with Teach-Back.

Respectfully ask patients to explain a concept or direction back to you. This helps ensure you were clear in all patient communications. It also gives you the opportunity to clarify any misunderstanding if needed. Teach-Back is not mimicking what you said—patients should use their own words to explain understanding.

5. Ask open-ended questions.

For example, “What are your questions?”, “What questions do you still have?, or possibly, “We just reviewed a lot of information. What parts would you like me to go over with you again?”   Each of these examples can help encourage questions rather than “do you have any questions?, which often results in a quick response of “no”.

Learn more about health literacy and health literacy strategies in this award winning book, Health Literacy in Nursing: Providing Person-Centered Care. For additional resources or to request health literacy services, contact Health Literacy Partners.

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Terri Ann Parnell DNP, MA, RN, FAAN

Dr. Parnell is a nurse, a recognized health literacy expert, and an award-winning author. She is Principal and Founder of Health Literacy Partners LLC, a corporation that specializes in providing a tapestry of solutions to promote health equity by enhancing person-centered care, effective communication, and the patient experience.
Terri Ann Parnell DNP, MA, RN, FAAN

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