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Health Literacy’s Impact on Patient Safety

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, September 21, 2016

October is Health Literacy Month. Find out what you can do to be part of the solution to low health literacy.

by Patricia McTiernan, MS

The most frequently referenced survey of health literacy in the U.S., the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), found that only 12% of English-speaking adults are at the “proficient” level of health literacy. That leaves an awful lot of us who sometimes struggle with common tasks such as reading and following directions for the use of prescription medications or adhering to other care plan activities.

Health literacy has been defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Proficiency is dependent on much more than the ability or read. The ability to use numbers, communication and reasoning skills, and cultural backgrounds all contribute to health literacy.

October is Health Literacy Month, so there is no better time to learn more about the problem of low health literacy and what you can do to be part of the solution.

An Equal Opportunity Problem

The NAAL found that health literacy is an issue for all racial and ethnic groups. Although health literacy increases with higher levels of education, 44% of those with a high school education are at basic or below basic levels. Among age groups, those 65 years of age or older are more likely to have health literacy skills at the basic or below basic levels.

The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy (2010) lays out goals for improvement. Among them, a call to the health care system and health practitioners to simplify complex language and present information in ways that make it more easily understandable.


Lea Anne Gardner, PhD, RN,
senior patient safety analyst
at the Pennsylvania Patient
Safety Authority, will discuss
health literacy in the NPSF
Professional Learning Series
Webcast on September 27.

Read details and register.

Health Literacy and Adverse Events

Recently, the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority has been involved in a statewide initiative to provide health care practitioners with strategies they can use to help their patients understand and be involved in their care. Researchers at the Authority searched the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Reporting System and found 265 event reports over a 10-year period that were potentially related to low health literacy.

The most frequent outcomes of patients misunderstanding instructions or information were delayed or cancelled procedures, surgeries, treatments, or tests; or patients leaving without being seen, according to an advisory issued by the Authority in June.

The advisory also discusses ways that practitioners can recognize low health literacy and some of the tools and strategies they can use to communicate more effectively. Among the recommendations are using teach-back methods, plain language, and open-ended inquiry, such as “What questions do you have?” rather than “Do you have any questions?”

Another method included in the advisory is the Ask Me 3 program run by NPSF. A cornerstone of health literacy communications, the Ask Me 3 program is designed to facilitate open dialog between patients and providers by encouraging patients to ask three key questions when receiving care:

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?

During Health Literacy Month and beyond, NPSF urges organizations to adopt these strategies to communicate more effectively with patients. Ask Me 3 is easy to implement and materials and guidance information can be downloaded on this website.

Take Action

Even with a recognition of the problem, it takes time for clinicians and organizations to retool the information and methods they use to communicate with patients. Resources are available to help.

A wealth of information about health literacy, including links to state organizations, is available via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visit, and use Health Literacy Month as an opportunity to educate yourself, your colleagues, your family, or your patients.

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Do you have tips or strategies for clear communication with patients? Are you a patient who has used Ask Me 3 or another resource? Comment on this post below. Note: to post a comment you must be logged in. Register or log in.

Patricia McTiernan is editor of the P.S. Blog. Contact her at

Tags:  Ask Me 3  health literacy 

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