After years of medical education and practice, healthcare knowledge, including the terminology and complex concepts that come with it, becomes second nature to physicians. It can be easy to forget that patients do not have the same level of understanding of healthcare issues, or “health literacy,” as physicians. Health literacy is the ability to understand health information, which is necessary to take ownership of your own health and stay on top of chronic conditions. It is fundamental to accessing healthcare services and to overall health. Unfortunately, only 12 percent of adults possess adequate levels of health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Patients with a low health literacy level are less likely to be able to manage their health, understand the health services available to them, use preventive healthcare services and understand how the healthcare system works. It is important for patients to not only understand the healthcare system, but also how to manage and treat their conditions and overall health.

A variety of factors, many of which are beyond patients’ control, affect health literacy. As patients’ points of access to the healthcare system, physicians can help solve the problem.

Here are three factors that influence health literacy and what physicians can do to help:

  1. Education Level

Lower health literacy is associated with less education. Those with a lower education level may not have been exposed to the same medical terminology and scientific concepts as those with a higher education level. Physicians can help bridge this gap by being aware of their patients’ education levels and communicating with them in terms they understand. Explaining complex words, conditions and concepts the patient may not fully understand can help patients better understand their health. Learning to identify patients with a lower literacy level is an important step. Physicians can also define complex terms in a way that is simple, offer assistance with medical forms and explain conditions and treatments thoroughly.

  1. Cultural Differences

Some patients may also have different cultural norms that may make them feel uncomfortable in a U.S. healthcare environment or unsure about how to effectively communicate with their physician. On average, Hispanic adults have the lowest rate of health literacy compared to other ethnic groups at 41 percent. Language barrier is one explanation for this disparity. Providing Spanish language handouts and services can greatly increase patients’ health literacy and overall quality of care. Physicians can also provide Spanish speaking services.

  1. Age

Lower health literacy is also associated with age. Studies have shown that poor reading skills increase with age and that lower reading levels have a negative effect on health literacy. This fact and its impact on health literacy are important considering the prevalence of chronic disease among the elderly. Physicians can help older patients by providing handouts with basic images rather than words, thoroughly explaining procedures and instructions, and organizing information to focus on the most important parts.

By understanding the different factors affecting health literacy and working to address them, physicians can impact their patients’ overall health.