Health illiteracy hurts compliance


To communicate to your clients, you must be knowledgeable on the issue.

You give your recommendations, explanations, and instructions in what you think is plain English. But do your clients know enough about the services their pets need to make smart choices? This little-discussed barrier to client compliance is called "health illiteracy"—and it's a big deal.

A report from the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit organization that offers science-based health advice, found that 90 million Americans—nearly half of all adults—are inadequately educated about health. And this lack of knowledge involves more than poor reading skills. In fact, more than 300 studies show that health-related materials cannot be understood by most of the people for whom they are intended. Health literacy also depends on writing, listening, speaking, arithmetic, and conceptual skills. Even well-educated people with strong reading and writing skills may struggle to understand a health history form or a doctor's instructions about a drug or procedure.

ACTION STEPS: These suggestions will help you and your team communicate more effectively with clients with limited health literacy.

  • Keep it short. Limit the amount of information you provide at each visit. Clients remember instructions better when you provide information in small pieces. Repeating key points further enhances clients' recall.

  • Slow down. Speak slowly when explaining important information to clients, pausing after important points. You may have said it a hundred times, but it's probably the first time this client is hearing it.

  • Show, don't tell. Use pictures or models to explain important concepts. Visual images enhance learning and recall.

  • Repeat after me. Ask clients to repeat your instructions in their own words. Called "reverse paraphrasing," this technique lets you know how well the person understands your instructions. For example: "I want to make sure I've done a good job explaining this to you. Can you tell me now, in your own words, how you are going to do X?"

Short, slow, visual, and repetitive: That's the best way to teach clients about the complicated issues involved in their pets' medical lives.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Bob Levoy is a speaker and writer based in Roslyn, N.Y. His newest book is 222 Secrets of Hiring, Managing, and Retaining Great Employees in Healthcare Practices (Jones and Bartlett, 2007).

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