How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Listening & Speaking

May 1, 2021

Health Literacy How-To

Just because listening and speaking happen a lot doesn’t mean that this form of communication is always easy or effective. For instance, speaking can be hard when providers are rushed, explain the same concepts over and over again, or assume that patients understand everything being said. For patients, listening can be hard because of complicated concepts like risks and benefits, abstract ideas such as wellness, and multisyllabic terms that may sound to patients like a foreign language.

Despite these many challenges, providers have a responsibility to communicate health information in ways that patients and their families or caregivers can understand. Here are some ways how-to: 

  • Try to find a private, quiet, well-lit place in which to talk. The space you meet in is almost as important as the topics you discuss. If a separate room is not available, at least pull curtains or move chairs to create a sense of privacy.
  • Develop rapport. Set a positive tone by beginning conversations with a smile and warm handshake. Introduce yourself by the name you wish to be called and, in turn, ask patients how they prefer to be addressed. Meet patients at eye level, sitting down if they are seated or in bed.
  • Give patients your undivided attention. You can do this by encouraging patients to fully state their thoughts by saying “that’s interesting,” or “please tell me more.” Make sure not to interrupt and, instead, make a note to yourself of issues to revisit when the patient stops talking.
  • Pay attention to tone of voice, pacing (the speed at which you speak), and sighs. Nonverbal utterances like these can be as expressive as words. Talking quickly and loudly may convey impatience, while a more relaxed and quiet tone can indicate caring and concern.
  • Confirm understanding. Use the teach-back technique to make sure that you and your patients truly understand each other. Start by putting responsibility on yourself (where it rightfully belongs) by saying something along the lines of, “Let me see if I’ve made myself clear.” Then ask relevant and specific open-ended questions like, “Some parents wonder when to call our office. If your child’s fever goes over 102 degrees, what will you do?”

These how-to tips were adapted from Helen Osborne’s award-winning book, Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition (Updated 2018) from Aviva Publishing.

Another way to learn about this topic is by listening to Helen Osborne’s podcast interview with Donald Rubin, PhD, “Interactive Health Literacy & Oral Communication (HLOL #35). A transcript is available for this podcast, too.