The importance of health literacy

Since 1999, 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 — but what is health literacy and why is it important?

Health literacy refers to individuals’ ability to understand important, health-related information such as dosage amounts, consent forms, acronyms, and other common forms of medical jargon. According to a study from the Department of Health and Human services, only 12% of Americans would be considered “health literate,” which is likely compounded by the fact that the average American reads at a 7th-8th grade level. However, by better understanding this issue, it is possible to improve health literacy and increase care options for everyone.

The importance of health literacy

Because medical information influences a patient’s ability to understand their treatment and advocate for themselves, poor health literacy is often associated with poorer health outcomes. At some point, everyone will need to be able to find, understand, and use medical information and services.

Lower health literacy is typically found in patients who are older, have a limited education, are lower income, have chronic conditions, and are non-native English speakers — resulting in around 80 million United States adults having limited or low health literacy. A lack of health literacy can result in many poor health outcomes, including: 

Increased hospitalizations: Research has indicated that lower health literacy skills are associated with an increased use of emergency services and a higher rate of preventable hospitalizations. Some research also shows that patients with limited health literacy skills often delay entering the healthcare system when an illness develops, resulting in patients who are sicker and require more extensive and expensive care from medical teams.

Decreased use of preventative services: Individuals with limited health literacy skills are less likely to utilize preventative services that can prevent future problems and detect illnesses and issues earlier. This includes screening services such as mammograms and pap smears, as well as general wellness services such as primary care visits and vaccinations.

Poorer health management: Patients that have limited health literacy skills have a higher likelihood of having a chronic condition, and a lower likelihood of being able to manage their conditions effectively. Patients may not comprehend instructions from their healthcare providers and not know what questions to ask, which could result in errors in medication dosage or lapses in a treatment schedule.

How to improve: Health literacy tips

For anyone hoping to improve their health literacy or support their loved ones, here are a few ways to become a more informed patient or advocate: 

Know what questions to ask.

It is important to think through the right questions to ask, and it is also important to advocate for yourself to make sure all your queries are addressed. If something a health care provider says is unclear, make inquiries that will address your concerns. Additionally, if your doctor gives guidance or instructions that you’re unclear on, repeating them back in your own words can be helpful in making sure you understand everything correctly.

Always keep track of your medications.

When visiting your healthcare provider, it is a good idea to write down the names and dosages of any over-the-counter drugs, prescription medications, supplements, and vitamins that you take so they can review them. Your doctor will be able to recognize if you’re combining things that shouldn’t be taken together, which can prevent issues from arising in the future.

Become familiar with your medical history. 

Your primary care doctor should have your health records on file, but if you need emergency or specialist care, it may not be possible to get these documents right away. Be sure you can provide a general overview of your health history (as well as any illnesses or conditions that impact your family members) in case the issue ever arises.

Bring someone along. 

Bringing along a relative or close friend to an appointment can be a good idea, especially if you may be getting important information. While you are talking with the doctor, your companion can take notes to make sure nothing is forgotten. If you’ll be visiting a doctor who doesn’t speak your native language, the front office may be able to provide you with an interpreter if you aren’t able to bring a bilingual person with you.

Find information online. Often, online medical content is digestible, as it is designed for a common audience and avoids the use of complicated jargon. This content can help you come up with questions to ask your doctor at your next visit and give you more insight into the condition or illness you’re researching. However, it is important to make sure you are only getting information from sources such as patient advocacy websites or medical media publications that are trustworthy and reputable.

Improved health literacy skills are something that anyone can benefit from, especially if you are dealing with a chronic condition or illness. Another way to make an informed decision about your health is by looking into clinical trial participation — click below to answer a few questions and see what your options are.