Health literacy—defined as the ability of an individual to obtain, process, understand, and communicate about health information—contributes significantly to health outcomes and costs to the U.S. health-care system. Approximately one-quarter to one-half of U.S. adults struggle with health information, which includes understanding patient education materials, reading medication labels, and communicating with health-care providers. Low health literacy is more common among the elderly, those who speak English as a second language, and those of lower socioeconomic status. In addition to conceptualizing health literacy as an individual-level skill, it can also be considered an organizational or community-level ability. Increased attention to the field of health literacy has resulted in debates about the definition and the best ways to assess health literacy; there is also a strong and growing movement within the field of health literacy research and practice to frame health literacy less as a deficit to overcome and more as an approach to empowering patients and improving outcomes. As health-care providers have recognized the importance of health literacy, workshops, and training programs have been developed and evaluated to improve the care of low-health-literate patients. Similarly, health promotion professionals have developed best practices for reaching low-health-literate audiences with traditional and new digital media, which can also increase access for patients with hearing or visual impairments. Additionally, recent policy changes in the United States, including those related to the Affordable Care Act, contribute to a greater focus and regulation of factors that impact health literacy. Researchers and practitioners together are advancing understanding of health literacy, its relationship to health outcomes and health-care costs, and improved strategies for improving the health of lower health literate patients. Development and review of health literacy pieces can aid in shared decision making and provide insights for patients on various health-care services.
Michael Mackert, Sara Champlin, and Jisoo Ahn
Maricel G. Santos, Holly E. Jacobson, and Suzanne Manneh
For many decades, the field of risk messaging design, situated within a broader sphere of public health communication efforts, has endeavored to improve its response to the needs of U.S. immigrant and refugee populations who are not proficient speakers of English, often referred to as limited English proficient (LEP) populations. Research and intervention work in this area has sought to align risk messaging design models and strategies with the needs of linguistically diverse patient populations, in an effort to improve patient comprehension of health messages, promote informed decision-making, and ensure patient safety. As the public health field has shifted from person-centered approaches to systems-centered thinking in public health outreach and communication, the focus in risk messaging design, in turn, has moved from a focus on the effects of individual patient misunderstanding and individual patient error on health outcomes, to structural and institutional barriers that contribute to breakdown in communication between patients and healthcare providers. While the impact of limited proficiency in English has been widely documented in multiple spheres of risk messaging communication research, the processes by which members of immigrant and refugee communities actually come to understand sources of risk and act on risk messaging information remain poorly researched and understood. Advances in risk messaging efforts are constrained by outdated views of language and communication in healthcare contexts: well-established lines of thinking in sociolinguistics and language education provide the basis for critical reflection on enduring biases in public health about languages other than English and the people who speak them. By drawing on important findings about language ideologies and language learning, an alternative approach would be to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the linguistic diversity already shaping our everyday lives and the competing views on this diversity that constrain our risk messaging efforts. The discourse surrounding the relationship between LEP and risk messaging often omits a critical examination of the deficit-based narrative that tends to infuse many risk messaging design efforts in the United States. Sociolinguists and language education specialists have documented the enduring struggle against a monolingual bias in U.S. education and healthcare policy that often privileges proficiency in English, and systematically impedes and discriminates against emerging bilingualism and multilingualism. The English-only bias tends to preclude the possibility that risk messaging comprehension for many immigrant and refugee communities may represent a multilingual capacity, as patients make use of multiple linguistic and cultural resources to make sense of healthcare messages. Research in sociolinguistics and immigration studies have established that movement across languages and cultures—a translingual, transcultural competence—is a normative component of the immigrant acculturation process, but these research findings have yet to be fully integrated into risk messaging theory and design efforts. Ultimately, critical examination of the role of language and linguistic identity (not merely a focus on proficiency in English) in risk messaging design should provide a richer, more nuanced picture of the ways that patients engage with health promotion initiatives, at diverse levels of English competence.
Julie E. Volkman
In health and risk communication, evidence is a message feature that can add credibility, realism, and legitimacy to health and risk messages. Evidence is usually defined into two types: statistical or narrative. Statistical evidence employs quantifications of events, places, phenomena, or other facts, while narrative evidence involves stories, anecdotes, cases, or testimonials. While many health and risk messages employ statistical or factual information, narrative evidence holds appeal for health and risk communication for its utility in helping individuals learn their risks and illnesses through stories and personal experiences. In particular, narratives employed as evidence in a health or risk message especially hold value for their ability to communicate experiences and share knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and ideas about complex health issues, propose behavior change, and assist individuals coping with disease. As a result, the personal experiences shared, whether they are from first-hand knowledge, or recounting another’s experience, can focus attention, enhance comprehension for risks, and recall of health and risk information. Furthermore, readers engage with the story and develop their own emotional responses which may align with the purpose of the health and risk message. Narratives, or stories, can occur in many ways or through various points of view, but the stories that “ring true” to readers often have a sense of temporality, coherence, and fidelity. As a result, formative research and pre-testing of health and risk messages with narratives becomes important to understand individual perceptions related to the health issue and the characters (or points of view). Constructs of perceived similarity, interest, identification, transportation, and engagement are helpful to assess in order to maximize the usefulness and persuasiveness of narratives as evidence within a health and risk message. Additionally, understanding the emotional responses to narratives can also contribute to perceptions of imagery and vividness that can make the narrative appealing to readers. Examining what is a narrative as evidence in health and risk messages, how they are conceptualized and operationalized and used in health and risk messages is needed to understand their effectiveness.
Jennifer A. Malkowski, J. Blake Scott, and Lisa Keränen
Rhetoric, commonly understood as the art, practice, and analysis of persuasion, has longstanding connections to medicine and health. Rhetorical scholars, or rhetoricians, have increasingly applied rhetorical theories, concepts, and methods to the texts, contexts, discourses, practices, materials, and digital and visual artifacts related to health and medicine. As an emerging interdisciplinary subfield, the rhetoric of health and medicine seeks to uncover how symbolic patterns shape thought and action in health and medical texts, discourses, settings, and materials. In practice, rhetoricians who study health and medicine draw from the standard modes of rhetorical analysis, such as rhetorical criticism and rhetorical historiography, as well as from social science methods—including participant observation, interviewing, content analysis, and visual mapping—in order to deepen understanding of how language functions across health and medical objects, issues, and discussions. The objects of analysis for rhetorical studies of health and medicine span medical research, education, and clinical practice from laboratory notes to provider–patient interaction; health policymaking and practice from draft policies through standards of care; public health texts and artifacts; consumer health practices and patient advocacy on- and offline; public discourses about disease, death, bodies, illness, wellness, and health; online and digital health information; popular entertainments and medical dramas; and alternative and complementary medicine. Despite its methodological breadth, rhetorical approaches to science and medicine consistently involve the systematic examination and production of symbolic exchanges occurring across interactional, institutional, and public contexts to determine how individuals and groups create knowledge, meanings, identities, understandings, and courses of action about health and illness.