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5 ways to boost health literacy, improve medication compliance

By Lisa A. Eramo

Let’s face it. Prescription medications are difficult to pronounce, and their regimens can be complex. Take three Pill As with food, one Pill B in the morning, and two Pill Cs right before bed. For patients with multiple chronic conditions and/or dementia, these challenges are even greater. They may find themselves asking, “Why am I even taking this medication? Perhaps it’s okay to skip a dose once in a while.”

What’s something that can make a big difference in terms of medication compliance (i.e., taking medications on schedule and as prescribed)? Health literacy. Only 12% of U.S. adults have the health literacy skills needed to manage the demands of our complex health care system. When stress or illness comes into play, the ability to absorb and use health information can be compromised even further. This is particularly true during COVID-19 when patients may face significant stress, illness, and social isolation.

Health literacy refers to the degree to which individuals can obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions. It’s one of many social determinants of health that can affect a person’s health and well-being, including their ability to take medication as prescribed.

There are many ways in which medical practices can promote health literacy to foster greater medication compliance. Consider the following:

  1. Use the teach-back method

The teach-back method is a way of ensuring that patients understand what you’re telling them by asking them to repeat in their own words how, why, and when to take their medications. By asking patients to do this, you can easily identify areas of confusion or misunderstanding and steer them back on the right track.

  1. Promote a team approach

Train staff (e.g., nurses and medical assistants) to reinforce medication compliance so the patient receives multiple, consistent messages about the importance of taking their medication correctly and consistently.

  1. Consider visual aids and other tools

Patients may benefit from understanding exactly what a medication will do for their body to help with their specific diagnoses. Using a visual aid (e.g., a video or anatomical model) can help them understand why it’s important to take the medication and not skip any doses.

Another option is to provide medication calendars, pill cards, schedules, or charts that specify when and how to take medications. There are other technology tools as well. For example, e-pill medication devices (e.g., automatic pill dispensers, pillboxes and timers, and alarm watches) can help improve medication compliance. A Bluetooth pillbox can even send providers a remote monitoring message each time the patient opens the pillbox, providing physicians with the information they need to detect compliance issues.

  1. Address language differences

Health literacy and language are tied closely together, which is why medical practices need to plan for interpreter services, when necessary, or match them with qualified bilingual clinicians or staff members.

  1. Provide educational materials

Many organizations (the American Diabetes Association, American Hospital Association, or American Cancer Association), as well as specialty societies, provide patient-friendly brochures and fact sheets. Medical practices can also work with their life science reps to obtain educational materials to help patients understand their medications and how to take them correctly.










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