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Stand Up Standout: Improving Communication, Engaging Patients

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Stand Up Stand Out is an occasional feature on the blog highlighting the work of organizations that belong
to the NPSF Stand Up for Patient Safety program. In this post, read how one New York City health center
is making strides to overcome low health literacy.

by Patricia McTiernan, MS


The National Patient Safety Foundation has long advocated for patients and family members to be regarded as integral members of the health care team. When patients are actively engaged, they can help improve patient safety and experience better outcomes.


Yet getting patients engaged in their care is more challenging than it might appear. Barriers to engagement are still common at many levels of the health care system, with a 2014 report from the NPSF Lucian Leape Institute citing low health literacy as one of the chief barriers.


Health literacy has been defined as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.”

The most commonly cited data suggest that only 12% of English-speaking adults in the U.S. are at a proficient level of health literacy. That means many of us struggle to comprehend care plans, medication regimens, and follow-up instructions.


To ensure that patients are able to understand important health care information, it is critical that providers recognize the nature of patients’ health literacy challenges and implement strategies to promote clear health communication. Ask Me 3, a program of NPSF, is designed to improve the lines of communication among patients, families, and health care professionals. The program encourages patients to ask the following three specific questions of their health care providers to better understand their health conditions and what they need to do to stay healthy.  The program encourages health care providers to use this framework to be prepared to answer the questions.


The Ask Me 3 program is one of the
tools being used at NYC Health +
Hospitals/Cumberland to improve
communication between patients and
health care providers.

1.     What is my main problem?

2.     What do I need to do?

3.     Why is it important for me to do this?

Through the use of these questions, Ask Me 3 empowers patients to become more involved in their health care, organize the provider-patient conversation, focus discussion on the answers to key questions, and help patients acquire the information they need to take care of their health. 


Staying Focused in Brooklyn

NYC Health + Hospitals/Cumberland, a Gotham Health Center, in Brooklyn, NY, is one of many health care organizations that have implemented the Ask Me 3 program to address health literacy. As part of NYC Health + Hospitals, the largest public health care system in the country, Cumberland has more than 57,670 patient visits every year from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. Marlene Dacken, RN, patient safety officer, points out that “empowering patients to be active members of the patient/provider relationship and ensuring that communication is clear are essential components of patient safety.”

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The hospitals under the auspices of NYC Health + Hospitals have been long-time members of the NPSF Stand Up for Patient Safety program. As part of a larger effort to engage patients in their care, Cumberland introduced the Ask Me 3 program in adult primary care clinics, specialty care departments, and pediatrics.


Overall, approximately one-third of patients at Cumberland have used the program, according to Cynthia Boakye, MD, medical director. “For adult medicine, we try to give it to every patient,” she says. “Those who choose to use it fill out the form and organize their thoughts before they see the provider.”


Before rolling out the program, the Cumberland team ensured that all staff members were on board by providing training on health literacy and the program. The program has become a part of the culture of care at Cumberland with ongoing training of staff and all new hires.


A nurse or nursing assistant explains the program to the patients and provides them the questions on a form. Physicians refer to the form during the visit and are able to correlate the information they want to tell the patient to the patient’s questions.


“Staff members believe that the program really helps the patient get focused on what they want to ask the physician during the encounter,” says Ms. Dacken. “This helps outline their process to keep focused on what their concerns are.


“I started to use it myself, because even as a nurse, sometimes you do forget or you lose focus,” she adds. “As a patient, the communication is often physician-directed, the provider asking all the questions, but there are questions not on the health provider’s radar that may be on the minds of patients.”


The team has also developed a program called Take the Pledge, Take Your Meds, to improve medication adherence, another common issue in outpatient care.


Results of these efforts are so far anecdotal, with patients and staff both reporting positive feedback. “The patients think that it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Boakye. “It helps them focus on what they have to ask the physician and keeps everything in alignment so they are not diverted.”


NPSF offers complimentary Ask Me 3 materials and resources to organizations interested in implementing the program. Posters and fliers in English and Spanish are provided, along with an implementation guide and other materials. In addition, a new educational module is now available to help educate clinicians and staff regarding health literacy and the Ask Me 3 program.


Some 2,000 individuals have downloaded the materials in the past year, and the Ask Me 3 program continues to be one of the most frequently visited areas of the NPSF website.


“We are very pleased with the growing interest and use of this program over the past few years,” said Patricia McGaffigan, RN, MS, senior vice president for program strategy and management and chief operating officer of NPSF. “We see it as a very useful addition to other tools organizations may be using with both patients and health care professionals to better engage and communicate with their patients.”


To learn more and download complimentary materials, please visit


Ask Me 3 is a registered trademark licensed to the National Patient Safety Foundation.

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What steps does your organization take to improve communication between patients and health care providers? 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

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Tags:  ask me 3  health literacy  Stand Up for Patient Safety 

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