Health-care providers and teachers have very similar roles. In the academic setting, teachers inform their students of a lesson in hopes that they will retain this information and be able to apply it later, when students are assessed using a test or other evaluation.

In the health-care setting, the goal of each patient encounter is to inform the patient of their health status and make recommendations and treatment plans that they can understand so that they can achieve their health goals in time for a follow-up appointment.

Many chronic and acute illnesses require the patient’s understanding of their illness or disease in order to avoid poor health outcomes. With this in mind, when providing health information to patients, value is typically measured based on the rate of patient compliance with a treatment plan.

Often in urban community health-care clinics, the patient’s education level and their ability to understand treatment recommendations can vary significantly from one patient to the next. This challenges health-care providers to deliver care to the patient that is individualized, not only in regards to disease processes and treatment, but in the educational method used to deliver this information.

Primary-care providers must be good teachers. They must be able to assess the learning needs of their patients in order to ensure that the desired outcomes are achieved. This is a difficult role. Oftentimes when health education is delivered, it is without prior assessment of the patient’s health literacy. This renders the health-care provider’s efforts fruitless.

Furthermore, although many health-care providers can recall a professor, preceptor or mentor that they identify as a good teacher, there is no formal instruction during medical training that explains how to develop this skill. Time constraints and over-booked schedules add to the difficulty.

But I have hopes that this will change in the future. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services has made improving health literacy in the primary care setting a priority, adding it to the list of Healthy People 2020 initiatives. A multidisciplinary approach will likely be required, including the development of tools that assess the patient’s health literacy, as educational level may not be the only or best indication.

Do you have any suggestions for improving health literacy in primary care, or tips that you us in practice to reach patients on their level?

Leigh Montejo, MSN, FNP-BC, is a National Public Health Service scholar completing her service commitment as a Family Nurse Practitioner at Tampa Family Health Centers, Inc., in Florida. Her areas of interest include health promotion, improving access to healthcare in underserved populations and adolescent health.