Helping Patients Understand Their Care

You play an important role in shaping how patients feel about the care they receive. Keeping health literacy and cultural competency in mind when talking with your patients will help ensure that they make the best decisions about their health.

Improving Health Literacy

Every day, people make important, life-changing decisions about their health, which are affected by their level of health literacy. Health literacy is the ability to find, understand and use information and services to make the best health decisions. When someone doesn't understand their health, they often have poorer health outcomes and higher health care costs.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most adults have a hard time understanding everyday health information. Studies have found that nearly half of adults read at a marginal level or below, with disproportionate rates among lower-income Americans eligible for Medicaid. People with low health literacy often have trouble understanding instructions from their providers and quantitative data such as drug doses. They are also twice as likely to be hospitalized and have more outpatient visits.

We understand the important role that health literacy plays in the relationship between you and your patients, our members. Improving health literacy will ultimately improve patient adherence and overall health.


The following resources can help you improve health literacy:

Best Practices

What you can do:

  • Create a safe environment where patients feel comfortable talking openly with you.
  • Encourage patients to bring a friend or relative to appointments for support.
  • Sit down to be eye level with your patient.
  • Be an active listener. Encourage patients to share information they feel is necessary for their visit.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Instead of asking, “Do you have any questions?” ask, “What questions do you have for me?”
  • Always address these three questions: “What is my main problem?”, “What do I need to do about it?” and “Why is it important for me to do this?”
  • Ask patients to “teach back” the care instructions you give to them.
  • Use culturally sensitive materials to represent the members' race, ethnicity and primary language.
  • Follow up with patients to make sure they understood your instructions. Ask for feedback.

Do not:

  • Make assumptions about a patient's health literacy based on age, race, ethnicity or level of education. Protect everyone's dignity.
  • Use medical and technical jargon, including acronyms. Use plain, direct, everyday language.
  • Make health references too text-heavy. Remember that some patients may not be able to read.
  • Use printed, graphic or online materials that are difficult to read or understand. Use visual models to illustrate procedures or conditions when possible.
  • Write prescriptions that are unreadable.

Our Commitment to Cultural Competency

New Jersey is one of the most culturally diverse states. We know it is important to serve our members in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner. We are committed to:

  • Working with members to identify cultural or linguistic barriers to care and overcoming those barriers.
  • Using culturally sensitive educational materials to represent the members' race, ethnicity and primary language.
  • Making sure that member and provider services staff recognize the culturally diverse needs of the population.
  • Teaching staff to value the diversity of their co-workers and the members served.

We also want to ensure that our network of providers is meeting the diverse needs of our members. View the Office of Minority Health's Information on Cultural Competency, Think Cultural Health, for more information.