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Universal Precautions: A Health Literacy tool

"Communicating clearly helps people feel more involved in their health care and increases the chances of following through on their treatment plans. All patients appreciate receiving information that is clear and easy to act on."

-Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit

If you have ever taken a first aid class then you have probably heard of OSHA's Universal Precautions guidelines which require healthcare professionals to assume that any bodily fluid may be infected with a blood borne pathogen such as HIV. This is the reason why healthcare professionals wear gloves. In a similar manner, there are Health Literacy Universal Precautions, which are steps taken by healthcare providers under the assumption that all patients have challenges understanding health care information. This practice helps to ensure that all patients receive health information in a way that they are able to act on appropriately. Universal precautions also help to eliminate possible embarrassment for patients who have literacy challenges.

There are four areas for promoting health literacy using the universal precautions guidelines:

  • Spoken Communication

  • Written Communication

  • Self-Management and Empowerment

  • Supportive Systems

As I shared in the Health Literacy 101 post, Health Literacy can affect any of us. Even the most well educated among us may have a difficult time comprehending health information if we are sick, in pain or stressed. The average reading level in the US is the 7th grade, however it is often the patient's responsibility to read and comprehend instructions on their own. After my car accident in July, I spent about 6 hours in the emergency room. Upon my discharge around 1:30am, while still in pain and very tired, I was given a packet of information with my diagnosis, descriptions of the medicines I was prescribed and a treatment plan. None of these things were explained to me. Fortunately, I have enough health literacy skills that I was able to work through the papers the next day, but just imagine how overwhelming or difficult that could be for someone who has low health literacy skills.

Had the doctor at the hospital followed the Universal Precautions guidelines, she would have explained the diagnosis and treatment plan, the medicines I was being prescribed and why and how I was to take them. The hospital administrators would have reviewed all of their paperwork to make sure that they were easy to read and understand. The nurses and doctor would have made sure I understood everything I was told and perhaps would have even offered to have my aunt or uncle, who were in the waiting room, listen to my discharge instructions along with me. This is the importance of the universal precautions. Had the healthcare staff assumed that I needed more help with my healthcare decisions then they would have been confident that I would be able to go home sure of the next steps and how to heal.


What does this mean for you as a patient?

You should feel empowered to ask questions of your healthcare provider. If your doctor is not offering solutions that are helpful to you as you take steps to maintain or improve your health, let him or her know. Your doctors want you to understand what is going on with your health. It does not look good if their patients are not able to control their health, not able to take prescriptions correctly or end up in the hospital unnecessarily. In the next post, we will discuss some important questions for you to ask your healthcare providers at any appointment.

Reference: Brega AG, Barnard J, Mabachi NM, Weiss BD, DeWalt DA, Brach C, Cifuentes M, Albright K, West, DR. AHRQ Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit, Second Edition. (Prepared by Colorado Health Outcomes Program, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus under Contract No. HHSA290200710008, TO#10.) AHRQ Publication No. 15-0023-EF. Rockville, MD. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. January 2015.


What does Health Literacy mean to you? Have you ever experienced a poor health communication moment? Drop a comment below. If this was helpful, please share this with your family, friends and colleagues. Subscribe so you never miss an update.

"Improving our health literacy so that we all may live healthier, more abundant lives."

#Literacy #Healthliteracy #Healthcommunication #Healthcare #Doctor #PublicHealth #advocacy

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