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February 5, 2024

The Importance of Health Literacy for Kids With Medical Complexities

Medical misunderstandings can lead to a variety of short and long-term emotional and psychological responses, including anxiety and loss of trust (both in medical professionals and caregivers). For this reason, it’s crucial to empower kids with health literacy skills, especially kiddos with medical complexities! However, health literacy goes beyond understanding medical jargon. Depending on their age, it might even mean avoiding jargon in favor of more concise language. 

In this blog, we’ll explore strategies for fostering health literacy in kids, encompassing how to navigate the healthcare system as it affects them, make informed decisions when necessary, and actively participate in their own care.

Start with Early Age-Appropriate Education

Begin the health literacy journey as early as is relevant by introducing age-appropriate health information. Use visuals, simple language, and interactive methods to explain basic concepts related to their medical conditions, treatments, and medications. Tailor the information to their developmental level, gradually increasing complexity as necessary.

Child Life On Call suggests some practical examples of how to use simple, concise language with kids during an IV placement procedure: 

  • Instead of “tourniquet,” say, “tight ribbon” or “rubber band.”
  • Instead of “alcohol wipe,” say “cold wipe to clean”
  • Instead of “intravenous catheter,” say, “tiny straw that gives your body medicine.”
  • Instead of “Tegaderm,” say, “clear bandage.”

Encourage Questions & Open Communication

Attempt to create a supportive environment where kids can keep comfortable asking questions. This fosters a sense of empowerment and helps them develop the confidence to communicate effectively with healthcare providers. The most important thing to remember is that when they begin to feel comfortable expressing themselves, actively listen to their concerns and provide reassurance.

In another example from Child Life on Call, Katie Taylor, a Certified Child Life Specialist suggests answering a question like “Am I getting a shot today?” with something along the lines of, “I’m not sure. Why don’t we ask the doctor when we get there? If you do need a shot, we can come up with a plan together.”

Utilize Visual Aids & Interactive Tools

Visual aids, charts, and interactive tools can be powerful tools for conveying complex medical information. These kinds of resources can help kids better understand their conditions, treatment plans, and medication schedules. Work with healthcare professionals to create personalized visual aids tailored to the child’s specific needs. 

Involve Them In Decision-Making

Empower children to actively participate in decisions related to their healthcare. Depending on their age and cognitive abilities, involve them in discussions about treatment options, potential side effects, and long-term goals. This sense of involvement can positively impact their adherence to medical recommendations.

Create a Health Journal/Diary

Help your kid create a health journal or diary. You can walk through a list of things like symptoms, medications, and appointments; however, encourage them to also write about how to feel or jot down questions they might have for their doctor. This helps give them a sense of autonomy, their own record of events to refer to, and also provides a judgment-free space to work through feelings.

Involve Healthcare Providers in Education

Whenever possible, collaborate with your child’s doctors, nurses, nutritionists, etc. to facilitate education. A unified approach involving both caregivers and healthcare providers contributes to more comprehensive health literacy.

Encourage Peer Support

Kids learn best from one another, so foster connections with other children facing similar medical complexities. This can be either in person or through virtual platforms! In general, allowing your child to talk about whatever health issues they’re dealing with (if they want to) is important. For example, our long-time community member Erin Peterson says her daughter Everly has found a lot of confidence in being able to teach others about her central line and backpack.

Learn more when you check out our recent interview with Erin and her incredible daughter, Everly!

Confidence Is Everything!

Promoting health literacy in kids involves teamwork from parents, caregivers, educators, and healthcare professionals. Tailoring education to the child’s developmental level, promoting open and honest communication, and utilizing interactive tools, can empower kids to navigate their unique medical journeys with confidence. 

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