Rockwood physician advocates for more 'health literacy'

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ROB CULLIVAN - Dr. Anna Jimenez, right, uses easy-to-read booklets to help her patients understand their conditions and how to treat them.It seems like a simple directive — take your prescribed pills twice a day.

But is it?

Does twice a day mean take two pills at once each day?

Or one pill every 12 hours?

Dr. Anna Jimenez, medical director of the Wallace Medical Concern, 124 N.E. 181st. Ave, Rockwood, believes health care providers, including doctors and nurses, need to speak in simple language when talking to their patients.

Physicians sometimes assume a patient understands exactly what they are saying — for example, “twice a day” can really mean “every 12 hours.”

But even well-educated patients can misunderstand what their doctors or nurses are telling them, she says.

“You never know who has problems with health literacy,” she says. “Health literacy can be a life-or-death matter.”

Jimenez recently gave a presentation on health literacy to the Gresham Chamber of Commerce’s Health and Wellness Group. Among the points she highlighted was the fact inadequate literacy skills hamper almost 90 million Americans.

That can be a real problem when a patient is trying to understand the words coming out of a health care provider’s mouth, she says.

Medical personnel spend years learning to speak the often complex language of modern medicine, but then have to turn around and translate what they’ve learned into everyday language for their patients, who usually have no background in medicine.

For example, she says, she advises her colleagues to use the term “high blood pressure” in lieu of “hypertension,” even though the latter term is often used by medical personnel.

“Teach your staff to use words that are similar to what they use with people outside a clinic,” she says.

Her own nonprofit clinic, Wallace, serves a primarily low-income clientele, half of whom primarily speak a language other than English and 20 percent of whom are homeless.

The clinic has put health literacy into action, she says, in a number of ways.

For example, Wallace changed its patient privacy form from a wordy document filled with terms even educated people don’t always understand into a concisely written, large-type form in easy-to-understand language a fifth grader could comprehend.

Similarly, the clinic uses pictures and illustrations of both human organs and medical conditions to help patients understand what is happening to their bodies, she says.

Wallace employees are also trained to ask patients what a provider tells them, so both parties are on the same treatment page, she says.

Patient tips

So what should you do if you want to improve your own health literacy? Jimenez offered a number of tips, including advising folks to bring a family member to visits and making sure you both understand what the provider is telling you to do.

If your provider prescribes medication, ask him or her why you need to take it, exactly what it will do and what side effects it might have, she says.

Pharmacists can also be helpful and a great source of information on the what, when and why of your prescriptions, she says.

Other experts advise asking your provider what is my main problem? What do I need to do about the problem? And why is it important for me to do this?

The internet offers sites devoted to health literacy. For example, visit the National Institutes of Health at and search for “talking to your doctor” for tips.

Among the tips the site offers is advising folks to write down questions they might have for their providers, prior to a visit, and asking how to access your medical history.

“You have every right to know your medical history,” Jimenez says. “Don’t be afraid to ask about it.”

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