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Cancer Communication Research Center
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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 instructions?

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 sources.

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.

Rachel Faulkenberry
Harvard University
2011 CCRC Doctoral Fellow

Written by CCRC at 13:04

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