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Strong Communication Skills Lead to Better Health Literacy


Famed playwright and activist George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." In healthcare, lack of communication can be highly problematic — even deadly.

In fact, it's estimated that only 12% of adults in the United States have a "high" or "proficient" level of health literacy. This statistic is not only disturbing from a patient perspective but also an organizational one.

What Is Health Literacy?

Health.gov, which is a subdivision of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) and falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), notes that health literacy has four key components:

  • People's ability to use health information, rather than just comprehend it
  • The ability to make "well-informed" decisions rather than just "appropriate" ones
  • A public health perspective
  • Acknowledgement of organizational responsibility to address health literacy

The ODPHP and HHS have been advocating for improved health literacy since 2010 when they helped launch the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. This plan aims to "engage organizations, professionals, policymakers, communities, individuals, and families in a linked, multi-sector effort to improve health literacy."

However, much of this goal relies on the individuals doing the "communicating." Without an informed approach — using differing communication skills and styles — improvements in health literacy will be feeble, at best.

6 Skills for Improving Communication

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a widespread demand for skilled communicators. But, unfortunately, misinformation has persisted, and healthcare professionals have been tasked with overcoming various myths about the virus and prevention/treatment methods.

Yet, there is a much broader need for compelling communication styles — across all healthcare needs. One example is the obesity epidemic, which can trickle down from parents to children and lead to more health complications such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Another is the opioid epidemic. Patients need to understand the effects of long-term opioid use, as well as the potential for abuse and addiction.

By incorporating different communication skills and picking up on how people best receive information, professionals can make significant strides in advancing health literacy. Some of these methods include:

  • Persuasion: Some scholars believe that "to communicate is to persuade." Persuasion works best when approached gently, instead of "strong-arming" someone into accepting information and advice.
  • Conflict management: Varying types of conflict can arise in healthcare settings. No matter what the situation entails, professionals can optimize conflict resolution by employing three key steps:
  • Listening: allowing the person(s) to vent or express their viewpoint
  • Summarizing: replaying back those points to exhibit understanding
  • Questioning: offering up solutions in the form of questions (for example, "Do you think you could do XYZ?")
  • Negotiation: Similar to conflict management in style, negotiation is about hearing one's frustrations or objections and arriving at an acceptable compromise. In respect to healthcare, a real-life illustration might be easing an overweight or obese patient into a healthier diet — rather than expecting them to go "cold turkey" on sweets.
  • Nonverbal cues: Sometimes, silence speaks volumes. Good communicators can detect what a patient is not saying whether by avoiding eye contact or flinching at one's touch. Even verbal outpourings can be nonverbal in a sense, like if a patient seems to be "over-explaining" in their answers.
  • Cross-cultural awareness: We are a nation of mixed individuality — from ethnicity and language to religion, and everything in between. While it's impossible to know every single aspect of one's specific cultural background, the best communicators do their research so they understand why a certain patient might present themselves the way they do or has objections to a provider's approach.
  • Intergenerational appreciation: Each generation or age cohort has specific needs, from pediatric patients to geriatric ones. This also includes communication preferences. For instance, understanding how to speak to an 80-year-old patient who may not have the technological prowess of a Gen Z or millennial patient ensures healthcare professionals both educate and empower in the most efficient way possible.

Building Your Communication Repertoire

These communication styles and skills only represent the tip of the iceberg. At the core of all of them are two critical components: listening and acknowledging every person as an individual — not just another "case" to be analyzed.

As someone in the healthcare landscape, you can always work on building your communication repertoire. These types of communication competencies extend beyond roles like physicians, nurses and hospital staff. The Bachelor of Arts in Health Communication online program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) offers courses that prepare individuals for positions such as:

  • Communication Manager/Trainer
  • Healthcare Researcher
  • Social Media Manager for Healthcare Organizations
  • Patient Liaison

Regardless of role, perfecting your communication skills can make a significant impact on health literacy. Ultimately, this leads individuals to make better, more informed health decisions in their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Learn more about NKU's online Bachelor of Arts in Health Communication program.


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