Above 77 million Americans have difficulty accessing health services and receiving quality care due to low levels of health literacy, according to a recent national survey.
When the language and terminology used in healthcare is difficult to understand, it can create a barrier for patients to access the care they need. Any gap in understanding can make it harder for patients to accurately communicate their symptoms and health concerns, and harder for healthcare professionals to effectively offer the right advice and provide appropriate care.
The use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, can help bridge this gap by simplifying the patient experience. Translating complex medical knowledge and making it available to patients in a simple and easy-to-use way can make healthcare accessible to those who would otherwise struggle.
Accessibility – literacy and reading age
Health care providers treat people of all backgrounds and ages, often during a period of suffering. Therefore, it is important to consider patient health literacy during consultations to ensure that the message is heard and understood. Failure to communicate in an empathetic and understanding manner risks exacerbating stress during a situation that may already be overwhelming, and at worse, may lead to additional health complications as a result of not understanding how to get the right care and the importance of completing proposed course of action.
Literacy levels are a very real challenge for people trying to navigate healthcare systems. The average reading level in the US is 6th to 8th grade (ages 10-13). 45 million Americans are functionally illiterate. This difference in literacy is most pronounced among the older generations, with only 3% over 65 years considered “competent” to navigate health care systems at a time in life when people are usually most in need.
In consultations, providers are caught between the complex, “medical” terms for symptoms and conditions used by professionals and the more parsimonious language used by patients. Doctors spend an average of a decade in training to give them the knowledge and skills to treat people, so it’s clear that patients usually have a different level of understanding. In recent years we have seen new efforts to encourage the adoption of readability tools and to lower the reading age of patient materials to 9-11 years, which is a good first step.
Health technology companies also play a role. By implementing features that simplify the user experience, significantly reducing the number of actions a user needs to take to achieve a desired result, and by avoiding jargon and providing explanations of complex terms in their app or platform, they can help improve health literacy and access to care. But designing features that support accessibility cannot come at the expense of safety and medical quality.
Crossing language barriers
Reading levels and confusing medical terms aren’t the only communication barriers that exist in healthcare. 67% of patients with limited English proficiency reported language as a barrier to accessing care in the US. There is also clear evidence that the introduction of translation tools improves both the quality of care provided and satisfaction with the outcome for both patients and physicians.
By offering assessments in multiple languages, health technology can allow users to report symptoms to health care providers, whether they speak English or not. The technology can then allow medical assessments to be made in a different language—for example, Spanish, where patients can explain their symptoms in familiar terms and language—which are then translated and delivered to the clinician in English.
As access to the Internet and mobile technology improves in remote and rural areas, health systems can implement a diverse range of languages through the use of technology. This can play a key role in achieving global health development goals.
To help patients in historically low literacy communities, such as rural or older communities in the US, access appropriate medical services, health technology solutions must take local nuances into account. In addition, they must have translation and quality-checking performed by experienced native-language physicians and present all content at an accessible reading age level, regardless of language.
Facilitating doctor-patient communication
Technology solutions should open the line of communication between doctors and patients. They need to make it as simple as possible while still addressing accessibility from a literacy perspective. The doctor-patient relationship is at the heart of effective health care and, unfortunately, many of the problems that arise in health care are result of miscommunication between these countries.
If a patient has a condition they find uncomfortable, they may not feel comfortable communicating all of their symptoms to their doctor, or they may find it difficult to communicate those symptoms effectively – making a full diagnosis more difficult. However, the ability to accurately diagnose a condition is only half the equation, as the details and implications of the diagnosis must also be effectively communicated and understood.
A symptom assessment platform can, for example, serve as a more effective first line of communication. Patients often feel more comfortable providing detailed personal information on a digital platform than to another human being, as it removes the stigma of being judged when speaking about potentially embarrassing medical issues. Patients can record responses on a real-time platform and these can then be presented in an easy-to-read patient report that can allow them to share another with their doctor who uses more expert clinical language. Reports can include likely conditions and their likelihood, a clear history of the factors used to achieve those results, and more information about the conditions. This helps facilitate a seamless experience without adding additional complications on either side and provides a solid starting point for the diagnostic journey.
Healthcare depends on clear communication, often about complex issues, using very specific terms. Health systems and providers have a duty to improve access to care and use all available means, including health technology.
In this context, health technology companies must take steps to ensure that their services are not only medically accurate, but also emphasize improving the user experience and maximizing accessibility to cater to individual needs. Thus, there is enormous potential for health technologies to improve access and equity in health care for all, including marginalized groups.
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