Health Literacy

Health Literacy: Making the Case to Organizations

Editor’s note: October has been Health Literacy Month, so I’ve often thought of Christopher Trudeau, who has contributed a number of posts to this blog over the years. Trudeau is affiliated with both the law and medical schools at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. He is also a member of the International Health Literacy Association’s Executive Board and the first lawyer to be appointed to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Roundtable on Health Literacy. This post is as relevant and helpful now as it was when first published four years ago.

Picture this: you are speaking to a group of leaders in a health system. They aren’t on their smartphones answering emails; they are engaged, interested and listening to every word you say. How great would that feel? I know; I know. This is not reality. So the question becomes, how do you engage these decision-makers enough to keep their attention while you make the case for integrating health literacy throughout the organization? Having done this on a number of occasions, here’s my advice:

Answer the key question about health literacy

Anytime I speak about integrating health literacy, I start by answering this question: Why does health literacy matter to your organization?

The answer may seem obvious to those of us who understand the importance of health literacy, shared decision-making, and patient-centered care, but never assume that it’s obvious to everyone in the room. Let me repeat that in a slightly different way; do not assume that people will connect the dots themselves. You, as the advocate, must create a mosaic of an integrated health system that values clear, patient-centered communication, even if it also wants to improve its bottom line.

Incorporate all facets of “Why?”

To really convince people about why health literacy is important, you typically have to engage them on many levels. I do so by focusing on three strategies: (1) rational reasons for integrating health literacy, (2) emotional reasons that “speak” to the leaders’ core beliefs, and (3) organizational reasons for prioritizing health literacy over other things.

  1. Rational reasons

Typically, all of my talks begin with the rational arguments for integrating health literacy. After all, leaders don’t usually become leaders without making evidence-based decisions, so it makes sense to provide them with this evidence up front. I typically include some eye-catching statistics (of which there are many) on the importance of health literacy. I vary the time I spend on this and how many statistics to present based on how likely it is that the audience has heard it before.

  1. Emotional reasons

Storytelling helps connect reason with emotion. Health literacy has many stories that can help link emotional and rational reasons to support the program.

I then start making the emotional case for integrating health literacy. This is essential for motivating people to act, but many minimize it (or leave it out entirely) in favor of more data. We all love stories. Storytelling helps connect reason with emotion. And health literacy has many stories that can do the trick. I usually show the short version of the AMA Health Literacy video. Even if some—upwards of half—of the audience has seen it, show the clip. Also, if I have time, I’ll show this clip: “This is bad enough.” If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s poetic, and it really helps paint the picture of the patient’s perspective of care. Of course, there are many other ways to make the emotional case for health literacy; your imagination and creativity are the key here.

  1. Organizational reasons

While it is important to make rational and emotional cases for health literacy, tying these reasons into the organization’s strategic vision really makes the case. To do this, use the organization’s own strategic thinking to show that health literacy is essential to its mission. In my experience, I can usually link health literacy to at least half of the organization’s goals.

Start by searching the organization’s website to see what goals it puts out to the world. If there isn’t much on the website, ask your contacts at the organization for any information they can provide. Armed with that information, begin planning your presentation to connect the ways that health literacy plays a role in these initiatives. For example, if an organization seeks to “create the ideal patient experience” or to “translate knowledge into practices and policies that promote better care,” which are actual goals I’ve encountered, then you know what you need to do in the presentation. You must show evidence (rational reasons) on how health literacy will help meet those priorities.

In the end, all three of these strategies—rational, emotional, and organizational—help you create a better presentation that builds the case for integrating health literacy throughout an organization.


Susan Carr Susan Carr is a medical editor and writer specializing in patient safety and engagement. In addition to curating the EngagingPatients blog, she produces publications for the Betsy Lehman Center in Boston and the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine. Susan lives and works in Lunenburg, Massachusetts.

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