By Kim Smiley
Keeping patients as comfortable and safe as possible following hospitalization is difficult if they aren’t receiving appropriate follow-up care after returning home. But a recent study “Readability of discharge summaries: with what level of information are we dismissing our patients?” found that many patients struggle to understand their follow-up care instructions after leaving the hospital.
Generally, follow-up care instructions are verbally explained to patients prior to discharge, but many find it difficult to remember all the necessary information once they return home. The stress of the hospitalization, memory-clouding medication, injuries that may affect memory and the sheer number of instructions can make remembering the details of verbal follow-up care instructions difficult.
In order to help patients understand and remember their recommended discharge instructions, written instructions are provided at the time of discharge. However, the study found that many patients cannot understand their written follow-up care instructions. The study determined that a significant percentage of patients are either functionally illiterate or marginally literate and lack the reading skills necessary to understand their written instructions. One assessment found that follow-up care instructions were written at about a 10th grade level and another assessment determined that the instructions should be understood by 13 to 15-year-old students.
One of the causes that contributes to this problem is that discharge instructions are written with two audiences in mind – the patient and their family as well as their doctor. Many patients need simple, clear instructions, but other doctors understand medical jargon and more complicated care instructions.
It is important to note that the study did have several limitations. Researchers did not give patients reading tests and instead relied on the highest level of education attained to estimate literacy skills. Non-English speakers were excluded. Even with this limitation, the study provided information that should help medical professionals provide clear guidance on follow-up care recommendations.
The obvious solution is to work towards writing care instructions that are as simple and clear to understand as possible. In order to help patients clearly understand their follow-up care instructions, the American Medical Association already recommends that health information be written at a sixth grade reading level. Providing clear contact information and encouraging patients to call their nurse or doctor with any questions about discharge instructions could also improve the follow-up care patients are receiving.