Honing the Handoff

Honing the Handoff: The Importance of Health Literacy Training for Healthcare Workers

By Suzanne Burdick

Have you ever passed a baton in a relay race? 

It's tricky business.

If a runner fumbles, it takes the next runner extra seconds to grasp the baton and value time is lost in the race.  If the baton gets dropped, the whole team gets disqualified and all their exertion goes to waste.  Relay runners therefore learn and practice proper baton-passing techniques, since it’s such a fragile and important concerted movement.

This tricky task—the challenge of making an effective transfer—is the topic of a 2011 article that appeared in “Patient Education and Counseling.”  The article was written by Michael Mackert, (current Director of the Center for Health Communication and Professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations and and Department of Population Health ), Jennifer Ball (current Assistant Professor of Advertising, Media, & Communication at Temple University), and Nicole Lopez (at the time worked for the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas).  He and his team showed that many healthcare providers overestimate their ability to successfully "pass off" information to patients.  Furthermore, they showed that specific training sessions would be helpful for developing the skills to communicate effectively with all patients. 

Health literacy refers to the ability of people to “obtain, process, and act appropriately on health information,” summarizes Mackert.  Many patients lack strong health literacy skills, and it can be more of a challenge to effectively “hand off” critical information to them.  Some people think that it just takes on-the-job experience—rather than actual training—to become a good communicator.  But think about it:  athletes train prior to race events.  Before the stakes are highest, they learn and practice their technique.  It would be foolish not to do so; the risk of fumbling or dropping the baton would be high.  It’s the same with healthcare staff who are like communication “athletes.”  They deserve proper training and opportunities to practice before a patient’s health—and maybe even life—is on the line.

That’s why the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas led ten health literacy training sessions with more than 200 healthcare workers.  And were the sessions worth the time and money?  To find out, Makert and his team gave participants a survey right before the session to find out how much they thought they already knew about health literacy, its importance in healthcare, and some helpful communication techniques (such as using plain, non-medical language and drawing a picture to explain a complex concept).  Then after the session, they gave participants a similar survey to see how much participants would say they then knew about health literacy, its importance in healthcare, as well as how inclined they were to use specific communication techniques.

A comparison of pre-session surveys and post-session surveys indicated that participants’ knowledge of health literacy increased due to the session.  (Or, more accurately, the participants’ perceived themselves as having increased their knowledge.  A formal quiz of their actual knowledge of health literacy was not administered.) Also, while prior to the session participants indicated they used plain language communication techniques only a bit to a moderate amount, after the session many more of them said they were highly willing to give the communication techniques they learned in the session a try.

Additionally, there was one more interesting finding.  After the session, participants expressed they thought they had originally overestimated their knowledge of health literacy when completing the pre-session survey.  The training session showed to them gaps in their knowledge—and then filled in these gaps with constructive information.

The takeaway here is that healthcare workers may think they know about health literacy and about how to communicate effectively with all patients, when in fact they may benefit from specific training sessions that help prepare them to communicate successfully on the job.  These medical “athletes” work hard and are deserving of training sessions to assist them in honing hand off skills. 

To read Mackert, Ball, & Lopez’ article, visit here