Four Strategies for Improving Health Literacy with On-Hold Messaging

By Kara Tarantino

To move our healthcare system forward, we need a consolidated effort to tackle the problem of health literacy head-on and remove complex, difficult-to-understand messaging throughout the entire spectrum of the patient experience. Relevant messages with a call-to-action should be delivered to patients and consumers where they need it most: when they call a hospital or healthcare facility. On-hold messaging provides the perfect gateway for providers to connect with callers, using easy-to-understand health-literacy messaging. The most impactful messaging can help improve patient satisfaction, as well as the overall patient and employee experience – providing it is informative, current, and easy to act upon.

Information from luminary sources that is branded on a local level and feedback garnered from focus groups with hospital and physician practice patient-and-family committees are two examples of good ways to source valuable content. Armed with this information, marketers are better poised to create captivating messages in context with the needs and listening skills of their audiences. Messages that tell people what they need to do and where to get help empower them to ask questions that increase the likelihood that they will take action.

When people act, they are assimilating, absorbing, and retaining information. They are changing their thoughts and behaviors. This transformation is the desired result of effective communication and is evident in a higher level of audience connection and increased trust.

Improve health literacy and elevate caller engagement with these four strategies:

1) Use plain language to explain how to do things and why they should be done: Breaking down communication barriers helps prevent avoidable hospital re-admissions. Patients who know and understand a physician’s instructions feel empowered to act in their own best interest. Examples of messaging that can help support physician communication include demonstrating how to properly take medication, explaining why not refilling a prescription can have severe consequences, and why following a physician’s discharge instructions is critical to recovery.

2) Alleviate anxiety with entertaining and other unique audio formats: Patient education presented in dialogue and “skit” formats easily connects callers to your message and helps to increase message understanding, even if people are only half listening. Callers tend to tune in when they are being entertained with humor. Using comforting and supportive messaging is also helpful in reducing caller frustration when conveyed with empathetic voices.

3) Provide a call to action so callers can act upon information in real time: Call-to-action messages grab attention and encourage callers to make note of numbers to call for physician and screening appointments. Let people know about your on-site services, such as pharmacies, and provide numbers for prescription refills. If you offer discounts or coupons for nutritious meals in the hospital cafeteria, let people know before they come to your facility.

4) Clarify insurance terms and connect people to the right coverage: Studies show that not understanding basic insurance terminology makes it difficult for people to select the right coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Help people become more insurance literate by shedding light on terms like premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance. As you expand the types of messages your callers hear, they will see you as a more comprehensive and trusted health resource.

Callers placed on hold at healthcare facilities provide unique opportunities to initiate thoughtful and engaging communication. Easy-to-understand health literacy-focused messaging can encourage much-needed conversation between patients and providers and go a long way towards breaking down walls of confusing medical jargon and ineffective communication.

A results-driven strategic marketer with twenty-five years in the healthcare industry, Kara Tarantino is passionate about bringing health literacy messaging mainstream and developing content for diverse healthcare audiences that can be acted upon in order to positively affect patient behavior. Kara is a board member at the Georgia Alliance for Health Literacy and has led marketing at Vericom (a Spectrio company). Email Kara at

[From the April/May 2014 issue of AnswerStat magazine]