Case Management

Tip: Working with patients who have low health literacy

Case Management Weekly, August 18, 2010

ProLiteracy, an organization that promotes literacy worldwide, defines literacy as the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables individuals to reach their full potential as parents, employees, and community members. Health literacy includes the ability to access, understand, and apply basic health information.

Try not to overwhelm patients with low health literacy. Create a firm educational foundation by allowing ample time to use patients’ experience and discover how they have been managing their health issues to date. Because formal education experiences are unlikely to have been positive, encourage patients to take an active role in the educational process.

Consider these tips when working with patients who have limited health literacy:

  • Limit use of medical jargon and acronyms. Patients may not know the meaning of emesis or BID.  They also may have something different in mind when they hear the word stool.
  • Use illustrations to replace or enhance instructions and educational material. Illustrations facilitate understanding of complex information for all patients.
  • Use simple and direct language. This is particularly difficult when conveying negative information. However, patients don’t benefit from efforts to ease delivery of this type of information if they can’t understand it.
  • Confirm that patients understand. Ask patients to explain what they learned in their own words. 

This week’s tip is adapted from Reducing Readmissions: A Blueprint for Improving Care Transitions published by HCPro, Inc. For more information about this book or to order your copy, visit the HCMarketplace.

Do you have a question about a case management topic? Send it to Associate Editor Ben Amirault at An answer to your question might appear in a future issue of Case Management Weekly.

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