Navigating the Health Care System a health Literacy Perspective Through the Eyes of Patients

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Navigating the Health Care System

  • A Health Literacy Perspective Through the Eyes of Patients
  • Ashley B. Hink
  • UNC Sheps Center for Health Services Research

Health Literacy

  • “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”
  • -Healthy People 2010

Purpose and Process

  • To gain patients’ perspectives on…
    • Navigating health care services
    • Interacting with medical providers and staff
    • Understanding health information
    • Self-care
  • Understanding their perspective helps us improve our practices
  • How?
    • Document and describe the process of scheduling and attending a primary care visit
  • Where?
    • UNC Internal Medicine Enhanced Care Clinic
  • Who?
    • New patient: Ashley Hink
    • Returning patient: Larry Holt


  • Ashley Hink
    • 25 years-old
    • MPH Student
    • Researcher, health educator
    • Has difficulty sleeping
    • For the purpose of the visit, she claims to have high blood pressure and no insurance
  • Larry Holt
    • 58 years-old
    • School Custodian, father and grandfather
    • Has diabetes, hypertension and chronic shoulder pain
    • Insured through BCBS State Health Plan
  • *Used with permission

First steps

  • I referred to a pamphlet about the Internal Medicine phone system to help me schedule my appointment. It was easy to understand, and I knew exactly which option to select.

Scheduling confusion

  • It took a total of 2 calls, 4 selected options, 2 connections, 1 voicemail message, 1 call-back and a final conversation with an Enhanced Care staff member to get my appointment. Fortunately, I was able to see Dr. Malone within one week.

Paperwork , and lots of it

  • As a new patient, I am required to fill out a seven-page personal health summary – most of which is very straight-forward and easy to fill out.

Health History Form

  • Seven pages inquiring about social and medical history
  • Generally easy to follow and read
    • Some medical terms have common names in parenthesis
      • Anemia (low blood)
  • Some of the answer options are not appropriate for the question (multiple choice vs. fill-in)
  • Often resort to qualifying answers
  • VD – not spelled out, examples are hard to read for those with low literacy

Release of Medical Information

  • No explanation or guidance
  • Technical/legal language, written at a high grade level
  • Must infer what information is needed
    • I authorize _____ to release to _____ the medical records of _____.
  • I decided to leave this blank for now, and will fill it out if requested by the provider

Reminders and homework

  • In addition to my appointment reminder in the mail and over the phone, I receive an explanation of my upcoming appointment to the blood pressure clinic. It asks me to bring all of my medicine and to take my blood pressure before coming in.

Requested BP Check

  • 120/83
  • 1/10/09 Before giving blood:
  • 108/74
  • 1/11/09 With home monitor:
  • 120/83

Made it

  • The UNC Ambulatory Care Center is home to 8 separate clinics. While the sign is hard to read from the road, it lets me know I’m in the right place.
  • Before arriving, I receive a message inquiring about my health insurance… I don’t respond

Direction and assistance

  • While looking at the sign that directs patients to the correct floor, a security guard greets me from the information desks and asks if I need help.


  • A staff member checks me in and I’m pleasantly surprised to find out that I have no additional paperwork to fill out, nor do I have to wait. I was asked if I had health insurance – I turned around after saying ‘no’ only to see people listening to my conversation.


  • I paused at the door in attempt to follow directions. After waiting a while a staff member told me to walk to the end of the hall.

Weight and vitals

Excellent physiological acting

  • My first blood pressure reading was 150/99. I blame it on taking the stairs and drinking 3 cups of coffee. The nurse tells me to relax. Five minutes later it was 148/92.
  • 150/99

Reading material?

  • I like to read the pamphlets and health magazines while waiting. Hoping to find something relevant to my personal health, I find only 5 options, 3 of which are in Spanish.

The visit

  • Dr. Malone asks me why I’m here and about my personal and family medical history. I discuss my sleeping problems, and tell him my family physician was considering starting me on a medication for high blood pressure. We discuss sleep hygiene, sodium in my diet, and treatment options for both issues.

Shared decision-making, future steps

  • Dr. Malone suggests re-starting my sleeping medication and possibly increasing it in the future. He says I don’t need to start an anti-hypertensive medication yet, so we discuss how I might change my diet.

Goals, changes and more homework…

  • The blood pressure visit summary sheet provides a good overview of our visit and what I need to do at home…
  • Decrease sodium intake
  • Re-start Trazodone
  • 3. Check BP three times in the next week

Pharmacy cold shoulder

  • After waiting about 15 minutes, I sit down to a seemingly half-interested counselor. I told her I’d be getting my medicine here soon and wanted to start the paperwork. She said she wouldn’t give it to me until I had a prescription… so much for being proactive.

45 minutes later…

  • Overall, my visit was an excellent experience. The process was relatively easy, the health care provider communicated clearly and included me in the decision-making process, and the staff were friendly.

Number of Steps?

Notable Points

  • Needs Improvement
  • Specify directions on the Enhanced Care phone system
  • Make forms and pamphlets easy-to-read (language and design)
  • Sensitivity toward uninsured
  • More pamphlets/health information in rooms
  • More signs in Spanish
  • Done Well
  • Multiple appointment reminders and directions
  • Friendliness of staff (most)
  • Short wait time to schedule and see provider
  • Provider communication, visit summary forms
  • Signage in English was clear and helpful

Established Enhanced Care Patient

  • Followed for over 7 years at UNC, Mr. Holt is more than familiar with the appointment process. He arrives 30 minutes early for his 9:00 a.m. appointment and is happily greeted by two front desk staff that know him by name. In less than 5 minutes, he is called back to see Dr. Malone.
  • *Used with permission
  • “I had been on about 8 different pills a day. Sometimes, you just forget it.
  • “It frightened me – I was scared to death. I had 4 doctors. It was overwhelming.”
  • How did you feel when you were first diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Did the medical providers clearly explain what diabetes is and how to take care of it?
  • *Used with permission

Blood pressure check

  • 120/76
  • Mr. Holt is here for a regularly scheduled diabetes and blood pressure follow-up. Dr. Malone intends to simplify his medication regimen so he can take all of his pills once a day.
  • *Used with permission

Medication review

  • Mr. Holt takes 5 medicines a day – he takes them out one by one, explaining what they are for, how many he takes and how much they cost
    • Metformin B.I.D.
    • Enalapril/HCTZ B.I.D.
    • Lantus Q.D.
    • Baby Aspirin Q.D.
    • Simvastatin Q.D.
  • He checks his blood sugar at least once a day, often before work at 5 a.m.
  • Mr. Holt takes two medications twice a day, and admits that he sometimes forgets the second dose.
  • *Used with permission

Review of Warning Labels

  • “Take it when you eat food.”
  • “It looks like a glass… I don’t know what it means.”
  • “It looks like they are showing you how to run your water.”
  • *Used with permission
  • How do you remember to take all of these medicines?
  • “Sometimes if I miss one, I’ll take 2 later.”
  • “I’ve used a pill box before.”
  • “I set my bag of medicine at the table where I eat. I have to keep it where I see it.”
  • “If I go out of town, I take what I need. I put the pills in aluminum foil, and I keep my insulin on ice.”
  • *Used with permission

Review meds, create a plan

  • Dr. Malone reviewed each of Mr. Holt’s medications and interrogated his glucometer. He made sure Mr. Holt was up-to-date on lab work and discussed options to simplify his medication regimen.
  • *Used with permission


  • Dr. Malone says, “Tell me what you are going to do.” Mr. Holt repeats each of the changes one by one, and Dr. Malone clarifies the directions if needed. At the end of the visit Dr. Malone asks, “Are we good? Any other questions I need to answer?”
  • Check BS before breakfast and dinner
  • Increase insulin to 19 units
  • Start Metformin ER 500mg, 4 pills in the morning
  • Start Lisinopril/HCTZ 20/25mg, 1 pill in the morning
  • Stop Metformin and Enalapril/HCTZ
  • Limits visit to 5 main points or changes
  • *Used with permission
  • Adherence Reinforcement
  • Visit summary sheet
  • Threw away discontinued medications to avoid confusion
  • Patient can now get all medicines at one pharmacy
  • Prescriptions faxed in and ready for pick-up in the afternoon
  • Requested follow-up to review changes and BS
  • *Used with permission
  • Health Literacy Best Practices

Patient Advice

  • “I would tell them that they need to write it – not in cursive, in print, and to use small words so I can read it. You see, I can hardly understand those real big words. You have to break down the syllables to understand the big words.”
  • If you had any advice to people that work in the clinic to make information they give you easier to understand, what would you tell them to do?
  • *Used with permission

Patient Advice

  • What about they way they talk to you? Do they explain things in a respectful way? Do they look at you when speaking with you? Do they explain things clearly?
  • “They explain it very well. They all know me! I come in and say good morning to everyone and they say hello. Everybody is fantastic out there. The nurses are fantastic, too. Since I’ve been coming here I really enjoy myself with the doctors and nurses and staff. They look out for me, so if I make a mistake it will be mine, not theirs, because they really explain things to me.”
  • *Used with permission


  • Last updated 3.26.09
  • Thanks to Dr. Robb Malone and Mr. Larry Holt for their participation. All personal information was used with permission.

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