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Implementing Routine Health Literacy Assessment in Hospital and Primary Care Patients

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Background: Patients with inadequate health literacy often have poorer health outcomes and increased utilization and costs. The Institute of Medicine has recommended that health literacy assessment be incorporated into health care information systems, which would facilitate large-scale studies of the effects of health literacy, as well as evaluation of system interventions to improve care by addressing health literacy. As part of the Health Literacy Screening (HEALS) study, a Brief Health Literacy Screen (BHLS) was incorporated into the electronic health record (EHR) at a large academic medical center.

Methods:Changes were implemented to the nursing intake documentation across all adult hospital units, the emergency department, and three primary care practices. The change involved replacing previous education screening items with the BHLS. Implementation was based on a quality improvement framework, with a focus on acceptability, adoption, appropriateness, feasibility, fidelity and sustainability. Support was gained from nursing leadership, education and training was provided, a documentation change was rolled out, feedback was obtained, and uptake of the new health literacy screening items was monitored.

Results: Between November 2010 and April 2012, there were 55,611 adult inpatient admissions, and from November 2010 to September 2011, 23,186 adult patients made 39,595 clinic visits to the three primary care practices. The completion (uptake) rate was 91.8% for the hospital and 66.6% for the outpatient clinics.

Conclusions: Although challenges exist, it is feasible to incorporate health literacy screening into clinical assessment and EHR documentation. Next steps are to evaluate the association of health literacy with processes and outcomes of care across inpatient and outpatient populations.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2014

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  • Published monthly, The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety is a peer-reviewed publication dedicated to providing health professionals with the information they need to promote the quality and safety of health care. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety invites original manuscripts on the development, adaptation, and/or implementation of innovative thinking, strategies, and practices in improving quality and safety in health care. Case studies, program or project reports, reports of new methodologies or new applications of methodologies, research studies on the effectiveness of improvement interventions, and commentaries on issues and practices are all considered.

    David W. Baker, MD, MPH, FACP, executive vice president for the Division of Healthcare Quality Evaluation at The Joint Commission, is the inaugural editor-in-chief of The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

    Also known as Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement and Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Safety
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