Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tip
July 2014

How Health Literacy Helps Make Health Care Safer: What Providers Can Do

There is a lot that patients need to do and think about when it comes to health care. They need to learn how to stay well, understand tests that detect disease, and seek appropriate care and correctly follow instructions when sick. Here are some health literacy strategies that healthcare providers can use to make it easier and safer for patients to do these tasks.

  • Teach patients about what’s wrong. Patients need to understand their bodies and what happens when they are ill. This includes learning about basic biology and anatomy. You can help by teaching what happens inside the body when a patient has an acute illness like appendicitis or a chronic condition such as diabetes. Make it easier for patients to learn by showing illustrations, sketching a picture, or demonstrating on an anatomic model.
  • Help patients know the difference between routine and serious. A while ago I had shoulder surgery. Everything was unfamiliar since I never had surgery before. The post-operative discharge instructions had lots of important information but I had no frame of reference to judge whether some of my symptoms were routine or serious. You can help by making clear what words like “excessive” mean. And of course, tell patients what to do should they experience these serious symptoms.
  • Confirm that the patient correctly understands. The teach-back technique is one of the most important ways to confirm understanding. Start by saying something like, “I want to make sure I communicated clearly.” And then ask the patient to say in his or her own words key points about what you just discussed. One way is by saying something like, “When you go home, what will you tell (your wife, brother, son, or someone else) about what we just discussed?” If the patient does not correctly understand, re-explain in a different way. Confirm understanding again by using teach-back.
  • Guide patients toward credible resources. Patients constantly try to figure out what to do about health. For instance, “Is this symptom so bad that I need to go to the doctor?” Or, “My cousin (friend, neighbor, coworker, or total stranger) had the same problem and told me that it’s good to ____________. Is that true?” Patients today are often overwhelmed with too much health information. It’s likely that only some of this is accurate and relevant. Help patients make sense of what they hear and read by guiding them toward credible resources. Make it easy by providing an up-to-date list of websites and organizations that offer unbiased, evidence-based, patient-friendly health information.

Helen Osborne is president of Health Literacy Consulting. You can learn more about how providers and patients can help improve health understanding by going to


For permission to include Health Literacy Consulting Tips in your organization's newsletter, please contact Helen Osborne by e-mail at:, or by phone at: 508-653-1199.