Patients who misunderstand their diagnosis and treatment plans usually exhibit poor compliance. The 90 million adult Americans with low literacy skills struggle to understand such essential health information as discharge instructions, consent forms, oral instructions and drug labels. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Organizations (JCAHO) now requires that instructions be given on a level understandable to the patient. Most physicians tend to give too much information on too high a level for many patients to understand. Physicians who speak in simpler language, repeat their instructions and demonstrate key points, while avoiding too many directives, enhance their patients' understanding. Combining easy-to-read written patient education materials with oral instructions has been shown to greatly enhance patient understanding. To be effective with patients whose literacy skills are low, patient education materials should be short and simple, contain culturally sensitive graphics and encourage desired behavior. Compliance with therapy also may be improved by including family members in the patient education process.