Health Literacy: The importance of Health Literacy and 8 ways to improve it

October is Health Literacy Month, a perfect time to know more about why it’s so important to improve Health Literacy and ways in which you can increase your knowledge.

What is Health Literacy?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Only about 12% of adults in the United States have good health literacy, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This means that about 88% of adults may lack the skills to manage their health and reduce their risk of disease and sickness.

Studies by the CDC and health.gov have indicated that patients with low health literacy:

  • Are more likely to visit an Emergency Room
  • Have more hospital stays
  • Are less likely to follow treatment plans
  • Have higher mortality rates
  • Have challenges with navigating the health care system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services
  • Have less success with utilizing online information resources
  • Are less likely to share personal information such as health history, with providers
  • Are less likely to engage in self-care and chronic-disease management

Overall literacy may impact Health Literacy but people of all ages, cultures, education, and socio-economic levels can have challenges specifically with Health Literacy. This is critical knowledge that provides fundamental and key information leading to better overall health, disease prevention and patient outcomes. Additionally, a factor not to be overlooked is the economic impact that low Health Literacy rates have on the U.S. economy, estimated up to $236 billion every year. 1 

8 Ways to Improve Health Literacy:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions from your health care provider. Bring a list of questions along with a list of your medications to your appointments. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a dumb question. All questions pertaining to your health and wellness should be brought up. This is the best way to immediately increase your health literacy. If your doctor, nurse practitioner, or health care provider orders a medical test, be sure to ask questions, such as:
    • Why are you ordering this test?
    • What will this test be looking for?
    • What are you trying to rule out?
    • What are the costs associated with this test?
    • What is the accuracy level of this test?
    • Are there any risks associated with this test?
  1. Don't leave an appointment if you are unclear about the next steps or have unanswered questions. Doctor visits can sometimes last for just a few minutes, and there may be a lot of information presented all at one time, which can be difficult to quickly digest and understand. After your health care provider gives you directions, be sure that you fully comprehend those directions. Request your health care provider to communicate clearly and speak in language and terminology that you understand. Ask for additional literature such as information on support groups, links, printouts, or book recommendations when needed.

  2. Be your own pharmacist. Know about any medications you are taking. Understand what they are treating, if they interact with other medications, what the potential side effects are including allergic reactions, and whether there are any special dietary or lifestyle restrictions associated with the medication. Make sure all drugs, vitamins, supplements, and herbal medicines are suitable for your health, and that your health care provider is aware of everything you are taking.

  3. Tell the truth. To be diagnosed and correctly treated, your health care provider needs to know all the details. You may not think that every detail is significant. That said, it is far better to err on the side of “oversharing.” The more information your doctor has, the more efficient the diagnostics will be. It’s not easy to own up to bad health habits such as alcohol or tobacco use, or poor diet and lack of exercise. Keep in mind this is critical information that will not be used in a judgmental way but is essential for the diagnosis and effective treatment plan. Your health care provider needs accurate information to help you make smart decisions to improve your health. So, 'fess up! If you're not comfortable enough with your health care provider to share your personal information, find a new one so that you can be fully open and honest.

  4. Bring someone with you. Taking a friend or relative to an appointment might be an especially good idea when you expect to receive important information or news. This person can help by asking questions during the appointment and can also take notes that you can refer to later. After having some time to digest the news after the appointment, there may be additional questions that come up. Having notes from the appointment for reference can be a big help. If there are still unanswered questions, be sure to call your health care provider.

  5. Know your medical history. Of course, your health care provider should have your medical records available. That said, your health records may or may not be complete, especially if you have recently changed providers or have seen a specialist. You don’t need to have your entire health history committed to memory but do your best to know as much about your health as possible. The more you know about your health history such as surgeries, procedures, medications, family history, health conditions, the better you can proactively participate in your health care.

  6. Tell the doctor's office if you need an interpreter. Don’t be shy about this. You have a right to an interpreter, at no cost to you. Even if you speak some English, you may miss important points that your health care provider is telling you regarding a medical condition. Tell the doctor's office what language you prefer when you make an appointment.

  7. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t mean it’s true. Do your own research regarding health questions you have. Always remember to use reputable sources and always follow up with your health care provider if you have any questions. There are several health websites on the internet, not all are trustworthy.

 

  1. J. Vernon, A. Trujillo, S. Rosenbaum, and B. DeBuono. Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy. University of Connecticut, 2007.
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