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AHRQ Resources for Overcoming Health Literacy Limitations

By Madeline White and Sungavi Sambasivam

A patient’s ability to understand written and verbal health information is dependent not only on an education and literacy levels, but also the accessibility of the health information provided. Recognizing that 88 percent of U.S. adults lack health literacy skills, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) published several resources to make health information easier to understand and health systems less challenging to navigate.

Some sociodemographic groups are particularly prone to lower rates of health literacy; for instance, uninsured adults and those enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid are more likely to be at or below the basic level of health literacy. However, many populations face challenges understanding health information, so AHRQ suggests health care providers safeguard against health literacy limitations with all patients and caregivers.

AHRQ Resources

Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit

Research shows health literacy can be a modifiable risk factor of socioeconomic disparities in health. The second edition of the AHRQ Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit targets four domains essential to promoting health literacy among patients and caregivers: verbal communication; written communication; self-management and empowerment; and supportive systems. The toolkit offers step-by-step instructions for overcoming patients’ health literacy limitations, as well as resources for evaluating the clarity of health information.

Clear Communication Training Modules

To overcome the additional challenge of ensuring patients understand the benefit, harms, and risks of treatment, AHRQ offers training modules to guide health care providers through clear communication strategies to ensure patients comprehend their treatment plan. Two 90-minute modules outline how to craft easy-to-understand consent forms and help patients make an informed choices.

Patient Education Material Assessment Tool

To further evaluate how patients will interpret health information, providers can use the Patient Education Material Assessment Tool (PEMAT) to ensure educational materials are understandable and actionable. The assessment tool produces a numeric score to help providers interpret clarity and highlights ways to make health education materials more accessible to diverse groups of patients.

Re-Engineered Discharge Toolkit

In collaboration with researchers at the Boston University Medical Campus (BUMC), AHRQ also published the Re-Engineered Discharge Toolkit (RED) to reduce readmissions and posthospital emergency department visits. This toolkit describes the link between health literacy and readmissions and recommends best practices to avoid miscommunication and help hospitals create smooth care transitions for patients from diverse backgrounds. Targeting health literacy limitations can improve patient comprehension of post-discharge care plans and, ultimately, lead to lower rates of hospital readmission.

Using these toolkits and resources from AHRQ could help ensure patients understand care treatment plans, receive accessible education materials, and avoid miscommunications at discharge that can lead to poor care transitions. By implementing strategies to overcome health literacy limitations, hospitals and health systems can improve patient engagement and ultimately improve health


About the Author

Madeline White is a former research assistant at America's Essential Hospitals.

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