Health Literacy—Not All Patient Education is Created Equal

Christy Calhoun, Senior Vice President, Consumer Health Experience

We live in a time of information overload. Health consumers are bombarded with tweets, alerts, fake news, contradictory studies, and more. So, if everyone can access information 24/7, why is health literacy still a problem? Because people can feel overwhelmed, uncertain about what sources to trust, and unable to make decisions or take action to care for their health.

Health literacy is a widespread challenge in the U.S., as these statistics show:

health literacy statistics

What is the impact of low health literacy?

The Institute of Medicine defines health literacy as “the degree to which people can obtain, process, and understand the basic health information and services they need to make appropriate health decisions.” Patients and families frequently lack relevant, accurate medical evidence and skilled guidance at the time of medical decision making.iv It can be challenging for people with low health literacy to seek preventive care, understand and follow treatment plans, or take medicines correctly. This can lead to confused patients, frustrated clinicians, overuse of the emergency department, and ultimately higher costs.

How can health education help?

The Healthwise patient education solution can help build bridges between clinicians and patients by delivering accurate health education that makes complex health topics clear and understandable.

What are the key components of an effective patient education solution?

Content that’s easy to understand.

The best patient education starts with plain language. That means someone can understand the information the first time they experience it. As a result, they’re more likely to get preventive screenings and flu shots, follow treatment plans, and take prescriptions the right way.

Understanding key information is critical to anyone’s successful health journey.

How do you know that content is easy to understand? At Healthwise, we ask patients, and we listen to their feedback. We tested 200 patient education articles that covered 8 conditions. In a group of 1,600 people:

  • 97% found the patient education to be clear.
  • 93% thought it was helpful.
  • 94% trusted the education.

Unbiased and evidence-based information

A cornerstone of the Healthwise promise is trusted content, trusted people, and trusted process. We have over 70 people on our Content Solutions team who keep health information up-to-date and make sure it’s helpful to patients.

When changes occur in medical guidelines and practice, we evaluate the impact of those changes, and we continuously update Healthwise education accordingly. This process ensures patient education is not only clear, but accurate and up-to-date as well.

Teach with visuals

At Healthwise, we take complex medical concepts and create clear visual content to help people understand how to take action. For example, we use the metaphor of a “smooth rubber tube” to simplify and teach the concept of healthy arteries.

comparing a healthy artery with an unhealthy one

In our videos, we use care and empathy to teach patients how to care for things like a surgical drain or central IV line to reduce the risk of infection. We also show step-by-step instructions to teach people how to do rehab exercises after knee replacement surgery, or how to find the right position when breastfeeding.

We design our content to make it easy for patients to follow, remember, and act on. Icons draw patients’ attention to the most critical points—the ones clinicians want patients to remember. Text is organized into clear sections to help the patient know what to expect along the way. And when it’s time to go home, patients have the knowledge needed to prevent readmission, like how to care for themselves at home and to watch for signs of infection.

Personal, relevant, and helpful

Plain language is a great first step, but we go even further to help clinicians connect with patients. We create health education that’s personal, relevant, and that makes health changes feel possible. We use a health behavior change model to identify and develop content across various stages of behavior change in chronic condition management, wellness, and lifestyle content to meet patients where they are on their health journey.

In practice, this means that if someone is recently diagnosed and learning how to limit fluids with congestive heart failure, we provide content that teaches these concepts. Or if they’ve been living with heart failure for a while, we help guide them through strategies for taking “small steps to self-care.” Through techniques like motivational interviewing and goal setting, we help each patient identify their own personal reasons for making a change.

Does it seem like a lot to ask?

It isn’t. It’s what the best patient education solution will bring to your organization. You should expect to partner with an organization that invests in high quality health information to benefit your patients and your business. Healthwise does just that.

Watch the webinar, Not All Patient Education is Created Equal, presented by Dr. Adam Husney, and Christy Calhoun to learn more about how the right patient education solution helps empower patients.


i Institute of Medicine (2004). In L Nielsen-Bohman et al, eds., Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Accessed September 19, 2017.

ii Institute of Medicine (2004). In L Nielsen-Bohman et al, eds., Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Accessed September 19, 2017.

iii National Academy on an Aging Society (1999). Low health literacy skills increase annual health care expenditures by $73 billion. National Academy on an Aging Society Fact Sheet. http://www. agingsociety.org/agingsociety/publications/fact/fact_low.html. Accessed September 19, 2017.

iv Ioannidis JPS, et al. (2017). How to survive the medical misinformation mess. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, published online September 19, 2017. DOI: 10.11/eci/12834. Accessed September 19, 2017.