The importance of health literacy for today's patients

Providing individuals with health education is an extremely important role of any person or organization working in the medical space. To do this effectively, it is vital to be able to reach audiences in a way that they can understand — which is why health literacy is an important part of the discussion.

The definition of personal health literacy, as updated by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in August 2020, 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.” This definition was updated from a previous version in order to emphasize that individuals need to be able to use health information and make well-informed decisions — not simply understand common medical terms. 

In this blog, we’ll be discussing why health literacy is an important topic of discussion, what kind of impact it has on health equity, and the role that healthcare providers and other industry professionals play in health equity education — keep reading to learn more.

Why is health literacy important?

Before addressing problem areas in health literacy, it can be helpful to understand why it is such an important (and widespread) issue. Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 adults are believed to have difficulty understanding health information, and there is ample research that draws a clear correlation between low health literacy, poor health status, and worse health outcomes. 

Individuals with low health literacy can have trouble understanding information given to them by providers, comprehending health assessment forms, communicating symptoms, following medication instructions, and staying up-to-date on preventative care items such as vaccines and routine examinations. Additionally, individuals with low health literacy are also more likely to live with chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure, meaning that low health literacy can have an outsized impact on their quality of life and treatment outcome. 

How health literacy impacts health equity

In addition to the broader implications of low health literacy in society, it is important to note that it can have a major impact on health equity, as well. Low health literacy has been shown to be especially prevalent among the elderly population, minorities, low-income individuals, and non-native English speakers, which can increase the already outsized disparity these groups face when seeking care. Additionally, Antidote’s own research shows that a lack of information is a bigger issue than a lack of mistrust for African American patients considering a clinical trial — an important consideration when trying to reach underrepresented groups for studies. Providing patients with resources appropriate for their health literacy level can be a key way to improve health equity and reduce disparity throughout the medical system.

Improving health literacy disparities

Anyone who interacts with patients can play a role in improving the disparities created by low health literacy. Whether a patient is seeking routine care, attempting to enroll in a clinical trial, or trying to navigate a new diagosis, every industry professional they interact with can help them better understand the situation by keeping a few key principles in mind:

Use narrative communication styles. Oftentimes, public health information will be presented through statistics and dry, clinical wording, which can be difficult to understand and follow. Studies suggest that narrative structures can lead to better comprehension and recall, so using anecdotes, examples, and quotations can be helpful.

Simplify complicated medical words. Using jargon, clinical terminology, and other types of difficult medical terms can alienate patients and make the medical process feel exclusionary. Make sure to simplify these terms when possible, and be open to answering questions related to specifics.

Offer multi-language materials. For individuals who don’t speak English as their first language, the barrier to understanding medical lingo can feel impossible to surpass. Consider having educational materials translated into other common languages to provide patients the opportunity to access information in their language of choice.

At Antidote, we’re passionate about reaching patients where they are. Click the button below to learn more about how our patient recruitment creates materials designed with the target population in mind.