Improving health literacy for better patient outcomes

Sep 21, 2017
Improving health literacy for better patient outcomes

Understanding today’s medicines, with their complex modes of action and potential side effects, can be difficult for many people. It’s not just reading that can pose a challenge to patients. Writing, speaking, and numeracy are other fundamental skills that patients may also be lacking. As a result, many people may find it hard to stick to taking a prescribed medicine the right way at the right time, which can impact treatment success and quality of life.

At the core of this problem is health literacy – the ability to effectively comprehend, evaluate and use health information to make informed choices. On average, American adults read at an 8th or 9th grade level, with 1 out of 5 of all adults and 2 out of 5 adults over the age of 65 reading at or below a 5th grade level.1,2 Populations most likely to have low health literacy are non-native speakers of English, older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, people with less than a high school diploma, people with low income levels and people in poor health.3

In addition to fundamental literacy, health literacy also comprises 3 other forms of literacy that are often overlooked but need to be taken into consideration when developing patient-facing materials:

  • Scientific literacy – understanding basic scientific concepts, such as the location and function of the body’s organs and how a particular medicine may affect the body
  • Civic literacy – understanding how to navigate the healthcare system and access support services
  • Cultural literacy – recognizing and understanding the beliefs, customs, worldviews, and social identity associated with diverse cultures

Unfortunately, most healthcare materials are written at a 10th grade reading level or higher, meaning that many Americans misunderstand prescribing information, including how best to access the medicines they need and how to manage their treatment regimen.

As a member of the pharmaceutical community, Astellas is committed to addressing this problem and to helping patients improve their health literacy and, consequently, their lives. That is why we are updating our health literacy guidelines.

Developed with the help of a cross-functional team, our new standards aim to guide the development of future patient-facing materials by:

  • Using simple language and defining technical terms
  • Organizing material so that important points come first
  • Making complex information understandable
  • Using active voice, avoiding medical jargon and aiming for clarity, conciseness and accuracy
  • Ensuring that illustrations support and enhance the written content

“Patients need information provided to them in a way that helps them understand their condition as well as the risks and benefits of their medication,” said Executive Director of Patient Experience, Doug Noland. “Easy-to-understand materials help patients and their caregivers recognize what they need to know and do, such as obtaining the care they need and following medical advice accurately, so that treatment is both therapeutically effective and cost-effective.”

With our new health literacy resources in place, Astellas will now focus on applying the standards in other areas, including consumer Important Safety Information (ISI) documents; updating internal development processes to incorporate patient review of draft materials; and reviewing informed consent materials for clinical trials.


  1. Safeer RS, Keenan J. Health literacy: the gap between physicians and patients. Am Fam Phys. 2005;72(3):463-468.
  2. Harvard University (2012). The literacy problem. Accessed September 4, 2017.
  3. US Department of Health and Human Services. Quick Guide to Health Literacy. Accessed September 6, 2017.
Improving health literacy for better patient outcomes

Astellas Patient Advocacy is a function within Corporate Affairs at Astellas that focuses on creating, building and maintaining third-party relationships. We serve as a conduit between Astellas and external stakeholders to help improve patient outcomes, improve access issues and address patients’ unmet needs head on.

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