The importance of health literacy

For the past twenty years, October has been recognized as Health Literacy Month. The goal, as defined by the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, is to raise awareness about the importance of understandable health information. According to a study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, only 12% of Americans are “health literate." This means that many individuals struggle to understand things like dosage amounts, consent forms, acronyms, and other common forms of medical jargon. One contributor to this issue is that the average American reads at a 7th-8th grade level

Why is health literacy so important? Here’s why being health literate is critical for positive health outcomes and a few strategies you can use to improve your health literacy. 

Lack of health literacy is associated with poorer health outcomes

According to the CDC, health literacy is important for everyone because, at some point in our lives, we all need to be able to find, understand, and use health information and services.

Low health literacy is associated with patients who are older, have limited education, lower income, chronic conditions, and those who are non-native English speakers. Approximately 80 million adults in the United States are estimated to have limited or low health literacy. A lack of health literacy can result in the poor health outcomes, including: 

Hospitalizations: Some research has shown that poor health literacy skills are associated with increased rates of emergency service use and higher preventable hospitalizations. Research has also illustrated that patients with limited health literacy skills enter the healthcare system when they are sicker. This can lead to more extensive and expensive care: ER visits, hospitalizations, and the need for specialist doctors.

Preventative services: Individuals with limited health literacy skills are less likely to utilize preventative services such as mammograms, pap smears, and vaccines. 

Health management: Patients with limited health literacy skills are more likely to have chronic conditions and are less able to manage them effectively. Patients may not understand instructions from health care professionals and may end up not taking their medications correctly or going to a lab to get their blood drawn. These can all lead to poor health management. 

How to improve health literacy

Wondering how to become more health literate? Here are a few simple ways to become a more informed patient and advocate (for yourself and loved ones): 

Ask plenty of questions, be clear, and come prepared. Don’t only ask questions, but make sure you get answers to those questions, too. If you don't understand something that your health care provider says, press them for more information. It’s OK to ask questions like: Why are you prescribing this medication? What side effects can it cause? Why are you ordering this test? Is this medically necessary? 

Sometimes, doctor’s office visits are quick, and health care providers can throw a lot of jargon and information your way all at once. After your health care provider gives you directions, it’s a good idea to repeat those instructions in your own words and ask if you understood it correctly.

It’s important to bring all your medicines to your next medical visit. Ask your health care provider to review all your over-the-counter and prescription medicines, supplements, vitamins, and herbal medicines. A health care professional will be able to recognize if you’re taking medicines and supplements that shouldn't be taken together. If you can’t bring all your medications with you, write down as much information as you can about the medications to share with your physician. 

Become familiar with your personal and family medical history. While your primary care provider should have your health records handy, you may find yourself in a position with a provider who knows nothing about you (such as a specialist, an urgent care doctor, or an ER attending physician). You're not expected to have your entire health history memorized, but do your best to know as much about your health as possible. The more you know about your personal and family medical history (like surgeries, procedures, medications, and health conditions), the better you can participate in your health care. 

Don’t hesitate to bring someone with you, too. Taking a relative or a friend who you are comfortable with is a good idea, especially if you are expecting important information. The person with you can take notes to help you remember everything later. If you go to a doctor in a place where they don’t speak your native language, be sure to tell the doctor's office and see if they can set you up with an interpreter.

Find information online. There is a ton of digestible information online from a variety of sources, including blog posts, videos on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, Facebook groups, and patient advocacy network pages. Much of this content is designed for a lay audience like you and I, and it may help you come up with questions to ask your doctor. Remember, though, that it’s important to consider the source of information you find online, and be sure to talk to your doctor before trying any new therapies or treatment approaches that you might have read about online. 

It’s always a good time to hone your health literacy skills. By doing so, you might even improve your own health. One way to help researchers make medicine more accessible to the public is to participate in clinical trials — and many participants report that taking part allows them to learn more about their health and to feel in control of their healthcare decisions. Interested? Click below to answer a few questions to see if there is a local match.