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Health Literacy in an Uncertain Time

Health Literacy in an Uncertain Time

Health literacy should always be an integral part of delivering quality health care. But now more than ever, in our current political climate, there is a heightened awareness and urgent need for culturally and linguistically appropriate care. Regardless of your political opinion, it is impossible to overlook the shift in tone of public discourse and rhetoric. The changes seem to be occurring rapidly, leaving people feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable from the language and actions they witness daily.

Stress and anxiety worsens health

A large portion of the U.S. population is facing fear, anxiety and uncertainty. These issues impact the healthcare delivery system on multiple fronts. First and foremost, stress is known to exacerbate health conditions.

But beyond that, many individuals feel a diminished sense of trust, which may lead to decreased communication. There may be fears of being deported; the LGBTQ community may feel anxious about coming forward; low-income families are uncertain about the future state of healthcare; and people with preexisting conditions are worried they will lose their health insurance coverage. Vulnerable populations are in need of support and empathy, especially as they seek medical care.

As a healthcare professional, you do not have all the answers, and it can be difficult to separate politics from your work life. In fact, you may be struggling with your own feelings and feel overwhelmed. Either way, your skills in health literacy are more important now than ever.

Create an atmosphere that fosters effective communication

Patients may be less transparent with their symptoms if they are worried about repercussions. Your patients, because of their fears, may withhold information critical to their symptoms or their ability to care for themselves. Incomplete or inaccurate statements by your patients can lead to incorrect diagnosis or treatment. Use culturally and linguistically appropriate communications. Ask more open-ended questions than in the past to create a trusting relationship and respectful conversation. Specifically, ensure you listen for clues that you may not be getting the entire story. Recognize that people may be afraid of speaking up.

Try to broaden your questions to illicit responses that go beyond the strictly medical. When having conversations with patients, ask “What is your biggest concern?” The answer may be only tangentially related to their direct healthcare. You may hear: “I worry my prescription won’t be covered” or “I’m worried I won’t be able to come back.”

There is increasing confusion about the future of healthcare coverage or affordability for many patients. If a patient cannot afford their prescriptions—even if they understand why they should take the medicine—they may not follow through with the treatment plan.

Continue to promote shared health care decisions

Poor health literacy skills also impact shared decision-making. Patients worried about coverage, tend to be less likely to challenge health plans and may be less forthcoming with information. Supporting patients with translations, interpreters and culturally and linguistically appropriate care that enhances health literacy will allow you to provide better care to all of your patients. During this time, some patients may need extra assurances that their input is valid and welcome and that it will not jeopardize their health care treatment at your facility.

Fear and stress are never good for health. Feeling ill and needing healthcare is stressful enough! Creating a shame-free and welcoming environment within your healthcare organization is critical to serving your patients. It is the ideal time to educate and train all staff on how to provide both culturally and linguistically appropriate care and remind them to be listening for subtle clues that may suggest a patient is not sharing all critical details.

Create a supportive environment and provide empathy that allows patients to express their real concerns.

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