A person's health literacy dictates their ability to garner and understand their own medical information. Unfortunately, low literacy levels in this area can lead to adverse outcomes, i.e., prescription misuse, ailment misunderstandings, and lawsuits. The consequences of health literacy make it crucial that every medical professional implements strategies focused on improving it among their patients.


Research consistently shows that low personal health literacy leads to higher mortality rates. If physicians and other healthcare organizations don't take this issue seriously, their patients suffer. Fortunately, the following methods for improving health literacy are easy to implement and standardize.

1.  Avoid Using Medical Jargon

Think back to before you started your medical education. Did you know the definitions of dysphagia, lipids, epistaxis or hypercholesterolemia? Let's be honest; some of us still might not know, depending on our specialty. That said, using medical jargon is one of the chief hurdles to improving health literacy.

Consider the following jargon along with more understandable terms for each:

  • "Harmful" instead of "adverse."
  • "Short lasting but serious" for "acute."
  • "Long-lasting issue" instead of "chronic."
  • "Fats" instead of "lipids."
  • "Dry skin" instead of "xerosis."
  • "Teeth grinding" instead of "bruxism."

Healthcare consumers need to understand what you're saying. If they don't, all the medical advancements and superior care in the world may be for naught. All of these may not be relevant to your specialty. However, they still show how easy improving health literacy among patients can be.

2.  Nurture a Welcoming Environment

This is one of the most manageable steps for improving health literacy. You can:

  • Have all your staff members smile and greet patients.
  • Teach everyone to maintain eye contact during sign-ins and appointments.
  • Engage in active listening and ask patients directly if they have questions or need more information.

These simple choices help organizations equitably enable individuals to take control of their health. Patient literacy impacts healthcare outcomes, but it's not always because medical concepts are challenging to understand. In many cases, individuals are simply intimidated or uncomfortable in a clinical setting. They find it challenging to trust physicians when they think they're viewed as nothing more than a customer or chart. Nurturing a welcoming environment can combat this issue.

3.  Take Steps to Ensure Patients Understand Instructions

Creating a welcoming environment and cutting back on jargon are significant steps. Unfortunately, they don't guarantee that your patients will understand what you're telling them. Improving health literacy is impossible when individuals do not comprehend and retain the information they receive.


Healthcare Literacy Month may only happen once a year (October in the United States), but you can utilize these steps every day in your practice. In fact, doing so is an essential step for improving health literacy. The following strategies can help healthcare professionals overcome this issue:


  • Ask open-ended questions: Asking closed-ended, "yes" and "no," questions makes it far too easy for patients to miss out on important information. Open-ended questions will require a bit of thought and are good to get the patient talking.
  • Use the teach-back method: Ask patients to explain what they have to know or do about their health in their own words. This teach-back method helps increase understanding.
  • Use the show-back method: Similar to the teach-back method, have patients show you how they'll perform certain tasks or operate medical devices.
  • Hand papers over upside down: When you give written materials to patients, do so with the paper upside down. If they turn it right side up, it indicates they're following along.

Always Focus on Improving Health Literacy

Modern medical science has seen some of its most impressive advancements in recent years. This, on top of an increasingly patient-centered approach to care, has done great things for healthcare consumers. Unfortunately, there remains much work to be done to improve health literacy.

However, by continuously striving to help patients become more health literate, doctors can enhance the standard of care they provide to their clients.

3 Ways to Improve Health Literacy and Your Patients' Health