Health literacy is an important aspect of healthy aging and is associated with a vast array of health outcomes. Limited health literacy is likely a significant contributor to health disparities in the United States, and is particularly significant in older adulthood. Geriatric and health professionals can enhance the well-being of their clients (older adults) by addressing health literacy limitations. A forthcoming article offers specific strategies for serving older adults with limited health literacy.
The authors provide an overview of some of the instruments available to assess health literacy. Unfortunately, a “one size fits all” measure does not exist; one that is ideal across different groups of older adults. Because of this, professionals should be aware of certain signs of limited health literacy, such as frequently missed appointment times, lack of follow-through with referrals, and the inability to identify the name and function of prescribed medications.
The article also offers strategies to communicate with patients with limited health literacy, such as avoiding jargon and other technical language. The authors suggest that rather than overloading the patient or client with technical information, practitioners should provide clients with specific actions that should be taken, and limit themselves to four main information messages in any given interaction. Active listening and open-ended questions should be used to ensure that there is understanding with the client.
The article also offers suggestions on developing printed materials for older adults with limited health literacy. Plain language and large fonts should be used, while blue, green and lavender text should be avoided as they are difficult to differentiate for many individuals with visual impairments. The article provides online resources for developing and assessing print materials for older adults with limited health literacy, such as:
- “An Author’s Guide—Substitute Word List” – University of Utah Health Sciences Center
- “Quick Guide to Health Literacy” – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- “Writing For a Changing World: Reaching Low Literacy Audiences With Print Material” – University of Missouri Extension (written by University of Minnesota Extension Service)
- The Fry Readability Graph
The article also suggests some easy-to-access sources of health material, such as the National Institutes for Health’s MEDLINEplus and the American Cancer Society. Although it is primarily oriented toward physical therapists, the article may be useful for health professionals in most fields.
Ennis K, Hawthorne K and Frownfelter D. How physical therapists can strategically effect health outcomes for older adults with limited health literacy. J Geriatr Phys Ther. 2011. (e-pub ahead of print)