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Health literacy: The gatekeeper for patient health outcomes

What is ‘health literacy’?

Health literacy, the ability to understand and apply health-related information, is fundamental for informed decision-making in healthcare. Alarmingly, up to 43% of adults struggle to understand healthcare information, with this figure rising to 61% when numerical values are involved. (1)

Research has shown that low health literacy is associated with poorer health outcomes, with effects even more pronounced in individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. (2) As such, this creates problems at both the individual level due to reduced quality of life, as well as the societal level, as healthcare costs are elevated. Health literacy may, therefore, be described as the gatekeeper for how much patients can actively contribute to their own care.

The consequences of poor patient communication

With the aim of improving patient care, regulatory bodies have urged clinical datasets to be more readily available. However, patients still face challenges in understanding what industry-led trial results mean for them specifically. This disparity often results in patients struggling to understand treatment instructions, complete medical forms accurately, and adhere to recommended lifestyle changes – the consequences of which could be severe. Research has revealed significant shortcomings in treatment adherence across various conditions, demographics and treatment types (3-7), emphasising the pivotal role of health literacy in fostering improved health outcomes.

Creating patient-centred material

Medical writers act as a source of information transmittance, enhancing patient experience at two critical levels: improving access to information and patient understanding once they attain that information. The more accessible a text is for a patient, the more likely they will benefit from its content. In this way, hospitalisations and medical risks are also reduced. (2)

Medical writers create patient-optimised materials surrounding clinical research publications, review articles, medical reports and policy briefs. Their history of working alongside patients allows them to utilise their expertise for best practices in translating scientific concepts into patient-centric terms, making the following adaptations:

  • Patient-specificity - personalised documents with relevant information on specific conditions, disease stages and treatment plans.

  • Integration - drawing on research across the drug development life cycle, their implications for different life domains and communicating key take-home messages.

  • Simplified language - conscientiously converting scientific jargon to layman’s terms.

  • Adjusted formatting and design - making font sizes and layouts less overwhelming.

  • Visual aids - figures, pictograms and infographics.

The benefits of involving medical writers in the healthcare delivery process

Over 1/3 of the EU adult population reported having a chronic health problem in 2022. (8) This prevalence of chronic health issues underscores the urgency of effective healthcare delivery amidst resource constraints. However, patients often retain only half of the information provided during healthcare appointments, leading to unresolved concerns and potential misinformation sourced from the internet. (9)

eHealth literacy, information provided by online resources, is a significant factor in mediating the relationship between health literacy and altered health-related behaviours. (10) By incorporating the above components, medical writers can provide reliable information whilst negating the negative emotional spiral that ensues when patients encounter overwhelmingly intricate information that further exacerbates interpretation difficulties. This enables patients to make informed lifestyle and treatment decisions that favour their long-term health outcomes.

Importantly, the impact medical writers have is bidirectional. Medical writers can inspire innovation by informing academic researchers and industry stakeholders on patient views and extraneous variables impacting outcomes, which may be responsible for non-significant results, resulting in improved likelihood of journal publication, and more so for those with a higher impact factor. (11) With increased understanding, patients can proactively seek treatment availability through direct contact with pharmaceutical companies, improving corporate outreach.

Patient-centric writing increases patient engagement, allowing them to build agency in managing their health. This improves patient satisfaction and health trajectories such that wait-listed individuals can be seen sooner, enhancing public access to services and commercial organisations.

Medical writers as mediators in the medical research and treatment dissemination process

Patient-centred approaches are becoming increasingly critical to the medical field’s development. The ultimate goal of healthcare research is to improve the lived experiences of individuals and reduce the socioeconomic burden of ill health. However, without effective communication with patients, improvements to patient trajectories are inherently limited. As experts in this field, medical writers are best placed to incorporate patient-centricity into current healthcare strategies, whether at the level of academia, industry, or patient associations.

Contact us at today to explore how our dedicated medical writers can expand the reach of your work, augment its impact and spark innovation that generates meaningful change in patients’ lives.


  1. Rowlands G, Protheroe J, Winkley J, Richardson M, Seed PT, Rudd R. A mismatch between population health literacy and the complexity of health information: an observational study. Br J Gen Pract. 2015;65(635):e379-e386. doi:10.3399/bjgp15X685285


  3. López San Román A, Bermejo F, Carrera E, Pérez-Abad M, Boixeda D. Adherence to treatment in inflammatory bowel disease. Rev Esp Enferm Dig. 2005;97(4):249-257. doi:10.4321/s1130-01082005000400005

  4. Sharma T, Kalra J, Dhasmana D, Basera H. Poor adherence to treatment: A major challenge in diabetes. J Indian Acad Clin Med. 2014;31(40):40

  5. Tavares NU, Bertoldi AD, Thumé E, Facchini LA, França GV, Mengue SS. Factors associated with low adherence to medication in older adults. Revista de saude publica. 2013;47:1092-101. doi: 10.1590/S0034-8910.2013047004834

  6. Vuorilehto MS, Melartin TK, Riihimäki K, Isometsä ET. Pharmacological and psychosocial treatment of depression in primary care: low intensity and poor adherence and continuity. J Affect Disord. 2016;202:145-52. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2016.05.035

  7. Gadallah MA, Boulos DN, Dewedar S, Gebrel A, Morisky DE. Assessment of rheumatoid arthritis patients’ adherence to treatment. Am J Med Sci. 2015;349(2):151-6. doi: 10.1097/MAJ.0000000000000376


  9. Laws MB, Lee Y, Taubin T, Rogers WH, Wilson IB. Factors associated with patient recall of key information in ambulatory specialty care visits: Results of an innovative methodology. PLoS One. 2018;13(2):e0191940. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0191940

  10. Lans A, Schwab JH. Health Literacy in Orthopaedics. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2023;31(8):382-388. doi:10.5435/JAAOS-D-22-01026

  11. Evuarherhe O, Gattrell W, White R. et al. Professional medical writing support and the quality, ethics and timeliness of clinical trial reporting: a systematic review. Res Integr Peer Rev. 2019;4(14). doi: 10.1186/s41073-019-0073-7