ULG's Language Services Blog

How To Foster Better Patient Understanding




Medical professionals are increasingly noting the correlation between patient health and health literacy. The more people are able to comprehend and understand about their healthcare, the more effective treatments tend to be.

Health literacy, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the degree to which people have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information in order to make the best health decisions. It is influenced by a patient’s personal knowledge, communication skills and culture, but it’s also affected by the communication skills of professionals and the demands they face.

Generally, health literacy tends to affect things like:

  • A patient’s ability to understand and fill out complex forms
  • A person’s ability to find the providers and services they need
  • The amount of personal and health background information that is shared with providers
  • The level of disease management and personal care that takes place
  • The ability to follow instructions and take medications as directed

The good news is, there are steps every healthcare organization and provider can take to help improve health literacy, removing some of the most common barriers to comprehension and understanding. Here are a few great places to start.




The onslaught of information online about healthcare, medical conditions, diseases and medications makes it difficult for many patients to know what’s credible and what’s not. As a medical professional, you can boost patient literacy by guiding them to the best and most accurate resources. For patients who don’t have the necessary experience to determine what information is credible and what isn’t, this goes a long way towards preventing the spread of misinformation.

Pharmacists in particular may want to consider guiding patients to reputable resources, given all the misinformation about drugs that circulates. Providing the information in writing is helpful for people who don’t have internet access — and also because patients tend to forget much of what you say after leaving.



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Vision and hearing loss are the most common physical limitations that interfere with patient communication and better patient understanding, particularly in aging and elderly populations. Consider these statistics:

  • About one in eight patients has some amount of vision loss, according to the American Federation for the Blind (AFB).
  • Fifteen percent of American adults report some trouble hearing, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) says.

Patients with vision loss need access to medical information and instructions in large print, or they need to hear the information verbally. Those with hearing loss should receive all information that is normally communicated verbally in writing.

While you’re likely aware of these communication standards, a huge part of the challenge is simply identifying whether patients have some amount of hearing or vision loss in the first place. Particularly when the condition is not debilitating, patients may not tell you. Or they may pretend to understand. When in doubt, it’s wise to provide information both verbally and on paper to ensure the message is received.




About 25 million people in the United States are Limited English Proficient (LEP), meaning English is not their primary language and their ability to speak, read and write the language is limited. This is a huge barrier to health literacy, and it makes patient communication far more challenging.

Medical professionals can address this obstacle by providing all LEP patients with translated health information and medication instructions, rather than doling out important information in English and hoping the patient finds a way to understand it. Drug companies are increasingly offering instructions in a variety of languages or providing visual instructions.

In certain situations where verbal communication is required with an LEP patient, the services of an outside interpreter may be necessary. Typically, this is reserved for serious or emergency situations.


Effective Communication Means Better Patient Outcomes


Quality medical care is essential to a person’s wellbeing. And, as we’ve pointed out before, there is a connection between the efficacy of patient-physician communication and health outcomes.

Whether dealing with LEP patients or not, medical staff has to be aware of the communicative needs of their patients in order to effectively care for them.