One of the biggest problems that health care providers have to deal with pertains to health literacy, which is a person’s ability to understand health care information and navigate the health care system. Currently, health literacy in the United States is woefully deficient.
So what exactly is health literacy?
There are many definitions out there, but the concept behind them is essentially the same. An example comes from the American Medical Association Foundation, which defines health literacy as: “the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions and follow instructions for treatment.”
The Center for Health Care Strategies puts it more simply. In their definition, health literacy refers to “the skills necessary for an individual to participate in the health care system and maintain good health.” The skills they identify are reading and writing, calculating numbers, communicating with health care professionals, and using health technology such as electronic diabetes monitors.
The Network for the National Library of Medicine agrees that health literacy involves using a certain set of skills. The network suggests that “health literacy requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical and decision-making skills, as well as the ability to apply these skills to health situations.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anyone who needs health information and services also needs health literacy skills. You can use those skills to find appropriate information and services, communicate your needs and preferences, and respond to the information and services.
Health literacy skills also enable you to understand the choices, consequences, and context of the information you receive. With such understanding, you can make decisions based on which information and services match your needs and preferences.
But there’s a big problem. An estimated 90 million Americans, nearly 36 percent, have low health literacy. And it affects certain populations more than others.
For example, Hispanic adults have lower health literacy skills overall than any other ethnic or racial group. Low health literacy is also more common in people who speak another language or speak English as a second language, as well as in older people, people with lower socioeconomic status or education, and people who are uninsured or on Medicare or Medicaid.
It’s imperative that we improve health literacy in this country because low health literacy is having a negative effect on how Americans use the health care system and on overall health outcomes. And as a result of increased use of services and poor outcomes, low health literacy is making an enormous impact on the nation’s health care costs.
The authors of a report titled “Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy” estimate the impact of low health literacy on the nation’s economy to be between $106 billion and $238 billion annually. That amount, the authors point out, represents between 7 percent and 17 percent of all personal health care expenditures.
To achieve optimal health, you must be an active participant in your health care. But people with low literacy often don’t have the skills necessary to clearly describe their symptoms to their health care provider, or fully understand their diagnosis and follow the instructions for their treatment. Many are simply unable to play an active role in their care.
And that affects the way they use the health care system. Many avoid going to the doctor, and when they have a health concern, they go to the emergency room for care instead. Studies show that people with low health literacy are 2.3 times more likely to visit the emergency room. And with that comes an associated increase in hospital admissions.
Health literacy affects overall health and mortality as well. Low health literacy has been linked to increased frequency of depression, physical limitations, and chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and asthma.
Making matters worse, people with low health literacy often have little understanding of their chronic disease. And because they are less engaged in their health care, they are less likely to use preventive services or follow instructions for managing their chronic disease. As a result, people with low health literacy have a much higher risk of complications and death.
Health care providers, health educators, and patients all have roles to play if we’re going to boost health literacy in America. Patients must be willing to engage with their providers and listen to what they say. Providers and educators can do their part by following these Four Simple Strategies for Improving Your Patients’ Health Literacy:
- Use plain language in both verbal and written communication
- Use visual aids
- Recommend and use technology – Research shows that nearly 90 percent of Americans use the internet and 81 percent own a smartphone. Using these technologies can be a good way for providers to get their message to patients.
- Use effective teaching methods – Some techniques include talking slowly, asking open-ended questions, and asking patients to repeat instructions given to them.
Why is health literacy important? It’s important because it allows you to make good decisions about your health. Health literacy also enables you to get appropriate medical care, take your medications correctly, and manage chronic diseases. And most importantly, it helps you lead a healthy lifestyle so you can live a full and healthy life.