Living with cancer blog

Health literacy — What are you missing when talking with your provider?

By Sheryl M. Ness, R.N. April 7, 2012

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which you have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions (Healthy People 2010, US Dept. of Health and Human Services).

Research shows that about 40 percent of adults lack the level of health literacy needed to manage their own health.

There's more to health literacy than intelligence or the ability to read and write. Understanding the scientific words and complicated explanations that are many times a part of a physician-patient conversation can be a challenge for most of us.

However, if you don't feel comfortable enough to ask questions or to ask for clarification in terms that you understand, big problems can occur.

Learning that you have cancer is stressful. Complicated terms and medical jargon can make you feel confused, unsure and overwhelmed at a time when you're already stressed and worried.

Healthcare professionals are beginning to recognize that health literacy is a true problem and just how difficult it is for patients to navigate and understand the language of the health care system. Positive changes are underway that will help to bridge the literacy gap between patients and providers.

At Mayo Clinic, plain language is a concept that's gaining support in all areas of practice, education and research. Plain language is clear, concise, useful and easy to read or understand the first time you read it.

We're making inroads, but the road ahead has many opportunities for improvement. Using plain language in our patient-provider conversations, and in written education pieces will help bridge the gap in health literacy.

For people diagnosed with cancer, health literacy can be a big challenge. Cancer is complicated.

Here's an example of a sentence that a patient might hear during a visit with a cancer doctor ... "You have adenocarcinoma of the colon. It has metastasized to the liver, and may be causing your fatigue and low hemoglobin. We would like to treat you with a novel biological therapy that has been found to be effective for this type of carcinoma."

With plain language in mind, this explanation could have gone like this ... "You have cancer of the large intestine. It has spread to the liver, and may be making you feel tired and to have a low red blood cell count. We would like to treat you with a new drug that works well for this type of cancer."

We can probably recall a visit to a physician's office when the words used went over your head. It is better to ask questions immediately so that everything is clear, than to have problems later on. What's been your experience?


Sheryl M. Ness, R.N.

April 07, 2012