Health Literacy – A Student’s Take


By Savannah Rae Hale


Savannah Hale

Courtesy photo: Savanna Hale

“I don’t understand” – the mantra of my student life. I sit here in my senior semester of nursing school and I still have this statement run through my head when I’m in my critical care class, trying to figure out different ventilator settings and the difference between wet and dry suction for chest tubes. If it takes me weeks to study the information in preparation for a test, how will I help my patients and their families understand the mechanisms behind their disease and treatment?

As students, we are just now getting our feet wet. Every day in the clinical setting is a learning experience. We have the opportunity to observe and practice our health literacy skills – no matter if it is your first day in the hospital and you are scared to even look at a patient or if it is your last clinical semester, you have the ability to make a difference in patient experience. Here are my tips and tricks for supporting the health literacy of all our patients:

  • First and foremost, assess your patient. This is something we do every day, every time we walk into a room. Don’t only assess their respiratory effort and oxygen saturation, but talkto them, understand them and make sure they understand your explanations. Assess to ensure understanding. Practice using teach-back.
  • Evaluate their needs. If you can’t communicate with your patient because of language differences, get an interpreter. Most hospitals have a direct line to request an interpreter, or use the language line telephones or iPads that connect you to an interpreter. If their culture revolves around the family rather than the individual, include and treat the family members like they are also your patients.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask them if they understand what is going on. A lot of times, patients are too scared or overwhelmed to ask questions for fear of being judged. They will appreciate you going out of your way to make sure they are an involved party in the care team.
  • Last, but certainly not least, do not regurgitate the explanations or definitions you hear in class. Your patient or their family will not understand that “the peripheries are cyanotic because tissue perfusion is obstructed.” Talk like a normal person; be someone who is relatable.

Challenge yourself to have this awareness and find an opportunity in every day. Once you start looking, you will find them.


Edited for AP Style.