The Power of Health Literacy and Improving the Environment for Patients

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Our guest on this week’s edition of the Healthcare Experience Matters podcast is Katie Owens, President of the Healthcare Experience Foundation. She leads us on a very important discussion regarding health literacy while highlighting powerful ways we can improve the patient’s environment.

“A third of adults in the United States have difficulty with these common tasks, such as following prescription medication directions or adhering to follow up instructions, and just about everyone is impacted by health literacy gaps,” Katie told us.

Health literacy refers to an individual’s ability to acquire, comprehend, and utilize information to make informed healthcare decisions and take appropriate actions. Katie emphasizes the importance of addressing health literacy gaps, considering that only about 12% of people possess adequate health literacy skills.

“Many times, we think we’re speaking in plain and simple language and patients really disagree,” Katie said. “When we can make it simpler, we empower patients to have more and more sense of control and autonomy because we’re sharing things in a way that they can process.”

Understanding the Magnitude of the Issue

The prevalence of inadequate health literacy becomes apparent when we realize that approximately 88% of adults in the United States struggle to varying degrees with health literacy. Katie highlights that this issue impacts just about everyone, including healthcare professionals, as individuals’ ability to process information may be compromised under stressful circumstances or during traumatic events.

The consequences of low health literacy are far-reaching, impacting understanding, adherence to treatment plans, and effective communication between patients and healthcare providers.

Creating a Supportive Environment

Recognizing the need for change, Katie stresses the importance of making health information more accessible, digestible, and applicable to support adherence. To address health literacy gaps effectively, it is crucial to foster an environment where patients feel safe to voice their concerns and seek clarification.

Patients should be encouraged to communicate openly about their understanding, affordability concerns, and the potential challenges related to their healthcare options.

Strategies for Providers

Healthcare providers play a vital role in bridging the health literacy gap. As the podcast continues, Katie offers practical tips for clinicians, physicians, and advanced practice providers to improve communication and patient understanding.

To put it bluntly: self-reflection is essential. Providers should evaluate past instances where poor communication led to negative patient outcomes. This self-awareness helps in recognizing areas for improvement and enhances the provider’s ability to identify patients who may struggle with health literacy.

Providers are urged to communicate in plain and simple language, ensuring that treatment plans, referrals, and diagnostic options are clearly understood. Sometimes providers may assume they are being clear, but patients may disagree. Therefore, simplifying language and framing discussions based on the patient’s goals helps empower patients and fosters a sense of control and autonomy.

Empowering Patients

Katie highlights the importance of patients being their own advocates in the healthcare system. Patients should feel encouraged to ask questions, voice concerns, and actively participate in decisions related to their health.

By reframing the challenge, focusing on patients’ goals, and involving them in the decision-making process, providers can empower patients to take an active role in their healthcare journey.

Enhancing health literacy is essential for improving the patient experience and overall healthcare outcomes. By addressing health literacy gaps and adopting patient-centric communication strategies, healthcare providers can empower patients, increase adherence to treatment plans, and ultimately improve patient satisfaction and save lives.  

Building a system that supports and values health literacy is a shared responsibility that requires collaboration between everyone. Together, we can create a more inclusive and patient-centered healthcare environment.

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Meet Katie Owens

Katie believes that the way we deliver and receive healthcare matters—not just for the patients, but for the caregivers, the providers, and administration, too.

As President of the Healthcare Experience Foundation, Katie is taking bold steps to assure that every organization has access to resources for engaging patients and developing their workforce to achieve results. Katie is an innovator, implementing new ways to deliver the best in patient-centered care.

She has influenced hundreds of organizations and thousands of leaders to equip their cultures and instill competencies that create environments of person-centered excellence. Her fundamental tenet is that every person is worthy of an environment where they feel confident in receiving and delivering the best possible care. Known as a leader among leaders, Katie previously served on the HealthStream Leadership Team as Vice President of the Engagement Institute. She also served on the Baptist Health Care (BHC) leadership team in Pensacola, Florida, where she supported the system’s sustained journey to excellence. Katie has led teams of expert coaches dedicated to improving the quality of the patient experience and has been instrumental in creating leading-edge learning assets to support patient experience competencies. She is most proud of having grown Baptist Leadership Group to one of the most respected healthcare coaching practices in the country before being acquired by HealthStream in 2013.

Katie is the lead author of The HCAHPS Imperative for Creating Patient-Centered Excellence and is currently writing her second book about the importance of speaking the patient’s language. She is frequently quoted and has been published in the Huffington Post, Healthcare Financial Management Magazine and Hospitals and Health Networks. She is an energetic, internationally-recognized speaker and has presented for many highly-respected organizations, including American College of Healthcare Executives, Beryl Institute, Cleveland Clinic’s Empathy Summit, Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development, and Healthcare Financial Management Association.

Connect with Katie Owens
More episodes with Katie Owens