5 Ways to Improve Patient Outcomes with Plain Language

Her doctor told her that her electrolytes were off, and then she worried how he knew her electric lights were off.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 12 percent of adults have the skills needed to effectively manage their health and prevent disease. Patients with limited health literacy:

  • Have a hard time taking medications as prescribed, interpreting labels and health messages
  • Have higher rates of hospitalization, emergency care visits and lower rates of immunizations
  • Know less about health as they don’t understand health information as well
  • Are more likely to report poor health
  • Seniors, in particular, have worse health, quality of life and earlier mortality

And because they’re more likely to be embarrassed about asking questions, it’s up to healthcare providers to make sure they understand.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, M.D. emphasized the importance of health literacy in 200 of his 260 speeches in office. According to Dr. Carmona:

  • “The health of our country depends on our understanding of basic health information in order to lead a healthy life.”
  • “Healthcare professionals do not recognize that patients do not understand the health information we are trying to communicate.”
  • “We must close the gap between what health professionals know and what the rest of America understands.”
  • “Health literacy can save lives, save money, and improve the health and well-being of millions of Americans.”

To improve patient outcomes, one of the initiatives of The Affordable Care Act is to provide more clear information to patients. The most common barriers to health literacy include:

  • Medical terminology, such as pandemic, immunize, transmit, influenza and prevalence
  • Reliance on print communication as patients have different styles of learning
  • Focusing too much on information instead of what patients should do
  • Limited awareness of cultural differences in language and word meanings

Imagine if you could improve patient outcomes by simply speaking in “plain language” when you talk with your patients. How can you be better understood?

1.  Start by asking yourself:

  • What’s the most important thing that you need to communicate to your patient?
  • If you had to pick one thing that you want your patient to walk away with, what would that one thing be?
  • Could your mother or neighbor understand you?

2.  Use “plain language“:

  • Simple, short words and sentences
  • Language in an active voice
  • Important information first, using everyday examples to explain medical terms the first time they’re used
  • “Chunking” or talking about one thing at a time
  • Bullets to share a list of information in written communications

3.  Include pictures or diagrams.

  • The simpler, the better.
  • One picture can be worth a thousand words.

4.  Speak your patient’s language.

  • Respect cultural differences.

5.  Communicate in a way that your patient will participate.

  • Give your overweight patient a nonperishable food item and ask them to read the food label, telling you how many calories are in each individual serving.
  • Ask your patient questions to see if they understand.

Doctors are just like everyone else, no one is born with good communication skills. But with the Affordable Care Act, it’s now the law to learn to provide more clear health information.

Just make sure what you say is simple, clear, understandable, accurate and something your patient can use or take action on.