Nine in 10 people lack skills they need to be healthy

Health literacy, why does it matter?

By Abby Norman | Feb 20, 2014
Abby Norman

Have you ever left your doctor’s office feeling confused or found yourself staying up late into the night using Google to research symptoms or your medical condition? If so, you already know a little something about health literacy. Health literacy is a term we use to describe how well patients can get and use information about their health. In the same manner that literacy addresses a person’s reading or writing ability, health literacy seeks to improve a patient’s ability to understand information about their medical condition. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes, “Only 12 percent of Americans are considered proficient in health literacy.” So what about the other 88 percent?

Think back to a time when you or a family member had a hospital stay. Your mind will probably fill with a lot of emotion: maybe it was scary, most likely it was stressful and you may have felt frustrated. Perhaps you felt embarrassed to admit that you didn’t really understand what the doctors were saying. You may have had trouble dealing with insurance companies, getting and remembering to take medications and trying to organize follow-up care.

Everyone’s ability to process health information is reduced when we are sick or injured. Those of us who work to improve health literacy want to make the information you receive as easy to understand and use as possible. Pen Bay Healthcare has been hard at work training staff and some employees have had further training through the University of New England's Health Literacy Institute.

How does Pen Bay help patients understand information about their health? Our providers, nurses, CNAs, laboratory technicians and patient registration assistants use "plain language" to help explain complex information to patients. We also know that patients have a hard time organizing all their medications. Pen Bay is taking steps to help ensure when patients leave the hospital, they know what pill to take and when. One way we do this is by using “Teach Back,” a method that helps to improve communication between patients and providers. The next time you’re at your doctor’s office, give it a try! Before you leave, ask your doctor: “Can I tell you, in my own words, the instructions you gave me about my new medication to make sure I understood you?”

At Pen Bay Healthcare we believe in delivering exceptional service and information to educate, empower and engage patients, clients, residents and their families and loved ones.

For more information about health literacy, visit

Abby Norman is Pen Bay Healthcare's Health Information data coordinator. She is also a freelance science writer and has contributed to many publications, including The National Medical Records Briefing and The Almost Doctor’s Channel (online).

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.