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Tips for helping patients understand their treatment plan

Building a positive patient-provider relationship can significantly enhance patient outcomes. One way to do that is to ensure your direct primary care (DPC) patients understand what they need to do and when, as you work together on their treatment plan. Developing your patients’ health literacy will improve their ability to actively engage in their own care as well as your ability to provide quality care to them.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) defines two components of health literacy:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

HRSA also emphasizes that the ultimate goal is for your patients to be able use the health information you provide rather than simply understanding it. They will then use that information to make well-informed decisions about their own care.

Health literacy leads to better outcomes as well as cost savings for patients and for your DPC practice. Those patients who are truly able to use their health information in ways that impact their care, including following treatment plans, taking their medications appropriately, and completing necessary screenings, will be positioned to achieve their own best health. Those patients who do not understand their treatment plan fully are less likely to follow your instructions for care and follow-up.

There are many factors to consider when helping patients understand their treatment plan. Social determinants of health, including access to food and housing, can impact a patient’s ability to follow through on post visit instructions, for example.

Cindy Brach, M.P.P., senior health care researcher at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) Center for Evidence and Practice Improvement and co-chair of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Health Literacy Workgroup, says that “The extent of limited health literacy is not generally recognized.”

Brach adds, “Limited personal health literacy, which affects more than a third of adults in the United States, is associated with lower receipt of preventive services, poorer ability to demonstrate taking medications appropriately, poorer ability to interpret health messages, greater hospital and emergency care use and, among seniors, poorer overall health status and higher mortality.”

HRSA suggests several tips for helping improve your patients’ health literacy:

  • Take the approach that everyone may have difficulty understanding diagnoses and instructions. Even highly educated people may have difficulty, especially if they are sick, scared, or tired.

  • Use jargon-free, everyday language, speaking slowly and using short sentences.

  • Supplement instruction with materials that aid learning, such as videos, models, and pictures.

  • Confirm that patients understand you by asking them to explain your instructions in their own words or to demonstrate a procedure, such as how they will take their medicine.

  • Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no,” and that begin with “how” and “why.” Then listen to your patients’ responses without interrupting.

  • Encourage questions by creating the expectation that patients will have them.

  • Limit information to what patients need to know, emphasizing and repeating the most important points.

  • Offer assistance with completing forms.

Clear and concise communication is key. Presenting information such as diagnoses and treatment plans using familiar concepts, words, and images in a way that makes sense will help you develop trust with your patients and will make the difference in their health outcomes.