When a patient enters a hospital or medical clinic, are there
simple, clear signs telling them where to go? Are they able to
navigate and fill out required forms? Can they read and understand
medical records, educational materials, and treatment
I am currently taking a health literacy class that is increasing
my awareness of the complexity of the written and spoken health
environment. I find that I am beginning to delve deeper into
understanding the challenges and potential opportunities that a
patient may encounter during interactions within medical centers
and when interpreting health information from a number of
People are often expected to have a range of skills in addition
to reading, including the ability to manipulate and understand
concepts such as numbers and risk, in order to fully navigate the
healthcare system. Unfortunately, research has found that the
complexity of many health materials, including resources for cancer
patients, surpasses the health literacy skills of many Americans
and leaves them unable to fully interpret the information at hand.
This disparity has led to poor outcomes and low perceptions of
coordinated care for cancer patients with low health literacy.
It requires somewhat of a perspective shift to fully understand
the challenges of the written health environment. As researchers
and doctors become established in the health world, certain terms
and phrases may become commonplace and familiar. However, to
patients, written or spoken communication containing numbers,
complex terms, and long sentences may create an overwhelming amount
of information to process. When grappling with the concept of risk
in life or death treatment options, this information overload may
be even more distressing.
As I am learning, it requires some practice to step back and
disentangle the different aspects of language and identify the ways
in which words, numbers, and charts can be expressed in more
approachable terms. The exercise is also a reflexive one as it
requires not just examining the literacy skills of patients, but
turning the mirror around and examining the communication skills
(written or spoken) of the person expressing the information.
Understanding the assumptions we bring in expressing and
researching health communication materials can serve to benefit
both our own knowledge and that of patients and community members.
As promising research in this field grows, I am eager to see how
future studies continue to make health literacy a key component of
cancer research and education.
2011 CCRC Doctoral Fellow