How to Achieve Healthcare Literacy, Part 1

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Healthcare literacy is a major issue. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry is teaching its users exactly opposite to how people actually learn language.  

In some ways, the healthcare communication challenge is no different than any other industry, because every industry, specialty, and company has its own lingo. Certain words, phrases, and acronyms serve as a communication link between co-workers, providers, practitioners, and vendors. Indeed, the language of medicine and healthcare is complex and precise, and the professionals using these terms were trained for years to become fluent and comfortable with its jargon. 

For the rest of us, however, this lingo can be confusing and alienating—no different than the jargon of computers, motocross racing, or accounting is to those outside of those communities. Not surprisingly, such confusing language is a chief factor of the healthcare consumer’s frustration and dissatisfaction, with the language barrier a key stressor of communicating with doctors and nurses.  

In fact, the terminology of the healthcare industry is particularly challenging for patients and consumers—those served by the system, but also outside the system. (And this is not a reference to those dealing with English as a Second Language.)

The Educated “Illiterate” 

There are all kinds of initiatives and advice on how to train physicians and healthcare professionals to “speak” to patients. The latest iteration seems to be a move toward patient-centric communication. In addition, Plain English efforts to identify the “best language” for the healthcare industry seem to be the prevailing solution to this issue., whereby everything is written at the 6th grade level.  

However, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 90 percent of the U.S. population has a high school degree, and of that group, another 30 percent have attained college degrees (or higher).  Clearly, the issue of healthcare “literacy” applies to college graduates and PhDs, as well as high school dropouts. In other words, the issue has little to do with the educational level of patient or consumer. Perhaps, it is time for a new approach.

How Adults Learn Language


ExecuSpeak Dictionary® has conducted research on how adults learn language, which has been detailed in previous ATD blog posts. In a nutshell, the research shows that while adults need seven to 20 repetitions of a new word or phrase to make it their own, they do not learn well under stress (unlike students cramming for a test). Just as experts recognize that doctor’s office setting compromises blood pressure tests, so is learning. 

Additionally, neuroscientists who research how people process language have discovered that the brain reacts to words it doesn’t in specific ways. The brain may either fill in a meaning (maybe the correct meaning, but maybe not), or it may slide right over the word as though it doesn’t exist. 

But how can the healthcare industry apply this research? 

My experience in the telecommunications industry has altered the way I think about sending and receiving information—in that “send” is one verb and “receive” is another verb. Can we turn the healthcare communication and language challenge into a two-way street, akin to the way communications actually takes place? Instead of just teaching medical personnel how to properly speak to patients, maybe we should “train” patients to share the language of the medical personnel.  

Moving Forward 

How can healthcare professionals know what is going on after the appointment a patient? It’s easy to think that patients fail to follow prescribed treatments because they don’t remember instructions and simply need to take the time to write down notes. But perhaps another reason may be lurking: Patients may be confused by unfamiliar terms that need to be defined. 

Bottom line: While it’s impossible to know what terms will be new or confusing to any one individual, it is possible to provide patients with the support they need once the language learning process is understood.  

In Part 2, we will examine how adjusting the learning process can improve healthcare literacy among patients and consumers.


About the Author

Carol Heiberger, the author of ExecuSpeak Dictionary, believes that glossaries and lexicons need to be re-recognized as valuable tools. Carol has parlayed her Wharton MBA and business experience into business tools for the 21st Century. ExecuSpeak Dictionary® creates toolkits to support the knowledge transfer and language learning needs of patients and professionals. Using our proprietary text analysis software and your electronic documents, we identify, organize, and distribute the glossaries that put technical language, lingo, and acronyms in your pocket.

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