Health Literacy for Healthcare

People make choices every day that affect both their short- and long-term health. Making these decisions can be significantly impacted by many factors, particularly their level of “health literacy.” Health literacy is a commonly used term that defines the extent to which someone can find, understand, and use basic health information to make appropriate health decisions that can improve the quality of their life.

It’s a set of critical skills that helps patients communicate with healthcare professionals, read, and understand health-related materials (such as prescription bottles), understand diagnostic tests, determine risks and benefits of treatments and procedures, and locate and evaluate credible health information.

The high cost of low health literacy

An estimated 90 million Americans – nearly 36% of adults in the U.S. – have low health literacy. [1] The reasons behind these numbers are varied, but often include lack of access to education, learning disabilities, cognitive decline, and cultural barriers.

Studies show that low literacy rates can result in[1]:

  • Medication errors
  • Low rates of treatment compliance
  • Reduced use of preventive services
  • Unnecessary emergency room visits
  • Ineffective management of chronic conditions
  • Longer hospital stays
  • Increased hospital re-admissions
  • Higher mortality rates

Together, these factors cost the United States an estimated $105 billion to $238 billion each year in direct health care costs, with indirect costs running between $1.6 trillion and $3.6 trillion each year.[2]

One three-year retrospective service utilization study of nearly 93,000 veterans found that veterans with marginal and inadequate health literacy cost $143 million more than veterans with adequate health literacy.[3]

On a mission to improve health literacy

Health literacy is a complex issue that must be addressed by patients and the many healthcare, educational and business institutions that are affected by low literacy levels. Healthcare organizations must be at the forefront of this pursuit to impact the health and well-being of the individuals and communities they serve.

Good health literacy plans help patients process and understand health information so they can get the care they need and stay in good health. [1] They help establish a shared language that facilitates effective communication between medical providers, patients and families at every step of the healthcare journey, impacting the entire patient experience. These plans establish a common language to equalize the patient-provider relationship and support patients in asking questions, managing their care, and following through in their care plan – all of which helps promote better outcomes.

A health literate organization “makes it easier for people to navigate, understand, and use information and services to take care of their health.”[4] Becoming a health literate organization aligns with programs such as Healthy People 2030, a set of 10-year goals for improving the health of Americans, as well as national Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) Standards and federal plain language guidelines. As payment models change from volume-based to value-based care, both individual clinics and larger health systems will be compelled to develop health literacy programs that support the health of their patients, communities, and profits.

Focusing on health literacy helps organizations:

  • Effectively communicate with many types of audiences, including low and high health literacy populations, as well as people with disabilities
  • Promote patient-centered care
  • Demystify the medical process for patients and families
  • Enable patients and families to navigate the health system
  • Increase patient engagement
  • Drive patient advocacy

In light of these dynamics, some of the largest, most recognized healthcare organizations have made progress in becoming health literate organizations, including Johns Hopkins Hospital, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Intermountain Healthcare, Seattle Children’s Hospital, UnityPoint Health, Atrium Health and Northwell Health.

The benefits of becoming a health literate organization

One of the key attributes of a health literate organization is that it “designs and distributes print, audiovisual, and social media content that is easy to understand and act on.”[5] This patient education can support the patient in making good health choices that can lead to better outcomes for patients, healthcare providers and society at large.

Studies have proven efforts to improve health literacy particularly help reduce costs and improve the quality of care for patients.[6]

Improved health literacy can lead to[2]:

  • Shorter hospital stays
  • Fewer emergency department visits
  • Fewer hospitalizations
  • Reduced hospital readmission rates
  • More screenings to prevent illness
  • Improved medication adherence
  • Fewer dosing errors
  • More trust between patients and clinicians
  • Higher patient satisfaction
  • Increased revenue and profits

Improving health literacy is also a key driver in reducing health disparities among different patient populations, helping us move toward equitable healthcare for all. Effective health literacy plans tend to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities in healthcare, which can reduce the effect of race and sex for some health outcomes – which has implications for millions of Americans every year.[2]

Health literacy also helps organizations meet current policy demands, including rules from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that state healthcare providers must teach patients in a way that gives the patient the chance to know what to do to get to or stay in good health.

Video education helps improve health literacy

Having access to digital tools that help improve health literacy is becoming increasingly important for healthcare providers. In recent years, video programs have shown exceptional promise in affecting patient outcomes.

“Video and print eduction tools provide organizations a common language for patients to better understand their healthcare journey and enables them to follow through in their care,” explains Marissa Badders, MSHI, BSN, RN, CPN, Outcomes Manager.

For example, patients who viewed a video education program were more likely to have controlled blood pressure regardless of blood control status.[2] Other patients experienced shorter lengths of stay after total knee or hip replacements.[2] Another study found that pairing online interactive media with automated phone calls resulted in a 15-day delay in readmission for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a 69% reduction in readmission length of stay.[2] That combination of patient education and follow-up also led to a four-day delay in readmissions for congestive heart failure, with a 51% reduction in readmission length of stay.[2]

Using video content to improve patient understanding enhances patient satisfaction in a number of different ways, even in difficult health situations. It can help patients during radiation therapy, when preparing to undergo a colonoscopy and after a stroke.[2]

Videos can impact a wide range of dimensions within a hospital system. In a study of almost 100,000 surveys from hospitals employing commercially developed and implemented video programs, 86% reported higher “doctor communication” scores, 62% had higher “discharge information” scores, and 59% had higher “nurse communication” scores.

Other studies have demonstrated that a combination of video and text-based education tools drive 90+% comprehension and retention rates in patients. When used separately, the effectiveness of video and text drops to just 50%.

“The most effect patient eduction is multi-modal combination video and text, teach back, one-to-one learning, and see one, do one,” says Kathy Levine, RN, Healthcare & Technology Consultant, Outcomes Manager.

The Wellness Network’s patient education tools offer a number of resources that can help healthcare systems implement these kinds of effective health literacy programs.

Our library of more than 11,000 pieces of education, including both print and video pieces of education covering major therapeutic areas, is designed to improve health literacy. The goal of these tools is to help providers create educated patients who can be more effective partners in their own care, improving not only their own health but the overall performance of the health care system. These materials not only improve health literacy, but it’s also the key that allows patients to participate in shared decision making with their healthcare providers.

  • All materials are designed to help improve health literacy by communicating health concepts in a way that is simple and straightforward, with one medical concept relayed at a time.
  • Our education is produced at a 5thgrade literacy level to easily communicate complex medical topics.
  • Materials are available in both Spanish and English.
  • Videos are created to accommodate different learning styles, including visual, auditory and kinesthetic, as well as learning preferences, such as social (linguistic learners), social and natural.
  • All education videos include metadata and questions for teach-back and comprehension to help clinicians gauge patient understanding and activation.
  • Our libraries are updated quarterly to provide clinical teams with the educational resources they need to improve health literacy and quality of life for every patient.
  • Recommended Learning makes it simple to deliver highly focused learning modules specific to where a patient is in their care or diagnosis with a click of a mouse or a touch of a button. Based on national guidelines, quality initiatives and core measures, we’ve developed Recommended Learning playlists that combine collections of individual assets into discrete learning modules. Our national Recommended Learning playlists cover a wide range of diagnoses, conditions, and procedures.
  • A series of patient portal educational resources were designed to help patients navigate the healthcare system. This series includes essential tips to help patients connect with their providers through the portal, find test results, and more. View a sample of these resources here.

Investing in digital health literacy tools from The Wellness Network will help increase the likelihood that patients will fully understand and comply with orders, be satisfied with their healthcare providers, and find themselves in better health.

Connect with our team to learn more!




[3] Haun JN, Patel NR, French DD, Campbell RR, Bradham DD, Lapcevic WA. Association between health literacy and medical care costs in an integrated healthcare system: A regional population based study. BMC Health Services Research. 2015;15:249.