Health Literacy: A Language Not Spoken By Patients

I graduated from Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature. I have been making a living as a writer for decades. But last spring, when I had torn meniscus scoped from my knee surgically at a nationally renown orthopedic hospital, the surgeon pressed into my hand ten pages of post-surgical care directions. Even later that day, the next day, and the day after, I could not decipher the medical directions without calling the surgeon’s office for help interpreting those directions.

There were prescriptions with great detail about both the medical problems they aspired to solve and the ways in which they might pharmacologically neutralize or solve those problems. Even as a content writer specializing in healthcare, I could not easily process all the science involved in these lengthy and extremely condition-specific dissertations on pharmacological solutions, even though I appreciated the good intentions of the part of the hospital to make me an empowered and aware patient.

The regimen of exercises the clinicians recommended as a program of physical therapy also required a fair amount of interpretation, relying on a matrix of crude illustrations and hand-drawn arrows and dotted lines, complemented by very detailed and ambitious explanations of the musculature development that would be the ideal consequences of the therapy plan, and at best subjective standards of what would constitute acceptable pain management during the process. Even the directions for taking the medications themselves were less than clearly defined, dependent on a deeply personal sense of when more medication might be required, and when less might be more appropriate.

I could only imagine the guesswork that might have been involved if I had been a patient more advanced in years, or not speaking “English” (much less “Medical English”) as a primary language. There is clearly a need for a better, more personalized and more clearly communicative source of medical expertise for patients in all phases of medical care, but especially in post-operative and post-hospital phases of self-care.

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Last Updated 9/1/16