We live in a time of incredible innovation in healthcare. For countless diseases, we now have more treatment options than ever before. But if patients do not fully understand these options or choose not to adhere to treatment, how many lives can really be improved or saved?
Lack of empowerment among patients is a major problem. The US Department of Education found that 80 million people have low health literacy and more than 65% of them come from minority communities. Too few patients understand their medical needs, their health care choices, and ways to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy.
There are many reasons for this disconnection. Many patients have had negative past experiences with healthcare facilities, making them wary of providers and services. This is especially true for populations that experience discrimination and bias such as people of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups. This also applies to patients who require mobility or other audio and visual aids. When patients from these backgrounds walk into healthcare facilities and don’t feel as though they are truly being seen or heard, it only deepens feelings of discomfort and mistrust.
However, there are solutions. We can close this gap by making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) a larger part of patient-centered programs and services. When patients see themselves, they can feel more represented in the healthcare community and foster deeper trust in their providers. This trust then enables misinformation to be corrected and more meaningful, impactful interactions that ultimately help improve outcomes.
Make patient content visually diverse and presentable
One place to start is diversifying the educational materials available to patients or members. Knowing the impact that more diverse and comprehensive medical information can have on engaging patients in their own care, improving the design and voice of digital patient tools requires a holistic approach.
For example, most educational materials include illustrations and graphics and may include a variety of skin colors. But representing diverse looks is much more than skin color. By designing a range of complexions and facial features, hair textures, even subtleties like nail and lip coloring, designers have a wider, richer, and more precise palette to work with. But truly diverse representation also means showcasing a range of ages, gender expressions, sexual orientations, family structures, and physical abilities.
One place in healthcare where this is extremely important is around maternal health. Maternal health is declining in the United States, and the impact is particularly severe for women of color. By making maternal health content more diverse, we can help reach a larger group of users—and make sure they feel included in the health content they turn to for guidance or information.
In addition to showing variety in images, it’s also important to look at tone and voice. For example, maintaining a conversational and approachable tone with an emphasis on everyday speech and helpful metaphors can help patients absorb information.
It’s also important to have a voice behind you that is diverse and will sound familiar to a wider range of communities. Although many solutions are bilingual – there is also a need to support a wider variety of languages beyond English and Spanish.
When these changes are implemented, the result is more than consumers saying they feel represented. The use of the material is also increasing.
Ensuring fair and inclusive access to medical information
But there is more to be done. In our digital age, access has never been more critical. Focusing on equity in content includes how people consume information – multimedia materials should include closed captioning and Aria visual labels that work better with screen readers.
Finally, there is inclusion. This is the part that makes each participant feel not just seen, but understood. To be inclusive, you must constantly challenge the norms we sometimes take for granted.
For example, when recommending a patient download a digital tool, suggest that they check for a Wi-Fi connection first and, if not, wait until one is available to reduce bandwidth consumption and potentially reduce data costs.
Think about the images you choose when you advise someone to ‘stay active’, for example showing an image of a runner or jogging or lifting weights. These forms of activity are not suitable for every body type, age or ability. The variety of people doing different activities will allow users to self-select what works for them.
Empowering patients and their caregivers
When diversity is well introduced in healthcare materials, trust is built and patient-provider relationships are improved. It also increases the medical accuracy of the information presented (for example, an illustration of measles will look different on pale skin than on darker skin). There are also general benefits: Providing patients with a variety of materials can significantly reduce costs and encourage patients to take a more proactive role in their health care decisions, which can help reduce emergency room visits. Overall, diverse materials improve long-term health outcomes for patients, which benefits our health systems as a whole.
To truly empower patients, more healthcare services need to adopt DE&I in practical applications such as patient education. To get there, we have to have conversations that can sometimes feel uncomfortable. We must listen carefully to patients, providers and partners. And we must remember that better performance is a mindset, not a checkbox. We all need to constantly step back to review and audit our work, always taking the opportunity to improve.
But most of all, I recommend celebrating diversity on your team and inviting others to the party. By building a culture that prioritizes DE&I across the board, you may be surprised to find how seamlessly and cohesively your work begins to reflect these values.
Photo: gmast3r, Getty Images