What if the universal precautions approach to health literacy really were universal?
Modeled after medicine’s universal precautions approach to infection control that treats all bodily fluids as they were infectious, this health literacy strategy is well accepted as one that improves communication: Assume it’s hard for all patients to understand health information and to use the health care system.
And if that approach were indeed universal, it would mean that everyone in health care—clinicians, hospital and clinic administrators, health educators, health plan executives, pharmacists, government bureaucrats, and more—would believe the following and behave accordingly:
- You can’t tell how health literate someone is by looking.
- Higher literacy skills do not necessarily equal health literacy.
- Health literacy is a state, not a trait.
- Everyone benefits from clear communication.
Just imagine the possibilities…
Patients would truly understand that they have choices. They would understand the risks and benefits of each choice, and that their values and preferences matter. People would make decisions that were right for them. Patients would ask questions in the exam room or hospital, because health professionals encouraged them to do so. People would engage in their care and take better care of themselves.
Labels on pill bottles would be easy to read, thanks to the use of clear language, punctuation, and sentence-case capitalization. People would be less likely to make mistakes when taking their medicines.
Office staffs would be trained to recognize when someone is struggling to fill out a medical history form. Patients would not need to feel ashamed, or feel embarrassed, or try to compensate.
Signs in hospitals and clinics would make it easy for patients to navigate. Even if someone didn’t feel well or was anxious about a test, it would be easy to know where to go.
Clinicians would ask patients how they like to receive information, and then they would document that preference in the electronic medical record. People would experience care that was tailored to their learning style, their cultural background, their language preference, and their personal needs.
Plain-language best practices would prevail. Patients would understand, and be able to act on and respond to, all written and verbal communication from the health care system—providers, institutions, health plans included—whether delivered in conversation, in print, via email, to their health portal, in a text message, or by video.
The universal precautions approach would help ensure that effective communication—a two-way process that is at the heart of health literacy—happened in every encounter that every patient has with the health care system. Shouldn’t we strive for that?
For more insights into health literacy, please visit the Healthwise health literacy resource page.
About the author:
Karen Baker is Vice Chair for the Center for Plain Language board, and Senior Vice President for Consumer Experience at Healthwise.