July 19, 2013

St. Vincent Charity Medical Center’s Health Literacy Institute helps patients understand and act on health care information

Only 12 percent of American adults are proficient at understanding and acting on health care information and up to 80 percent of medical information provided by health care providers is forgotten immediately by patients. Approximately 20 percent of American adults read at or below the fifth-grade level. However, most health information materials are written at the 12th-grade level or above.

In 2007, with funding from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, St. Vincent Charity Medical Center started the Health Literacy Institute in collaboration with Project Learn to help address these issues. The initial goals of the institute were simple: to increase the awareness of health literacy within the medical center, particu¬larly among management, nurses and physicians, and to review all current patient materials for health literacy.

Health literacy is a patient’s ability to understand and act on health information. It is also the health care provider’s ability to communicate so patients can act appropriately on the information and take better care of their health.

The Health Literacy Institute has been successful in institutionalizing health literacy policies across the continuum of patient care at St. Vincent Charity. All caregivers are now trained and audited regularly, beginning with their orientation to the medical center. They are trained to speak in plain language, to encourage patients to ask questions and to use the teach-back method. The teach-back method asks patients to repeat, in their own words, what it is that they were told or instructed to do. This exercise is successful in identifying whether a patient clearly understood what they were told. It also gives the caregiver the opportunity to re-teach the information if there was any confusion.

In addition to training, caregivers are assessed on health literacy each year during annual competency testing. The institute was also successful in revising the medical center’s patient materials to a sixth-grade reading level, and revising all signage to plain language.

In October 2012, St. Vincent Charity and Project Learn presented the Ohio Health Literacy Conference. The conference brought together health care professionals from across Ohio, with the goals of educating them about the issues, providing them with tools to bring health literacy to their organizations, and to begin the conversation around a statewide collaborative.

Nearly half of American adults—90 million people—have only basic or below-basic health literacy skills. Studies show that persons with limited health literacy skills have higher utilization of treatment services, including the emergency department and hospitalization, and lower utilization of preventive services. Difficulty understanding and acting on health information results in more than $100 billion in health care costs annually.

St. Vincent Charity Medical Center is a ministry of the Sisters of Charity Health System.

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