What is Health Literacy?
It seems that health literacy has become somewhat of a buzzword lately. Quite a few people are using the term, but few seem to know the real meaning. Health literacy is a lot more than someone’s ability to read. It requires many different skills including analytical, decision-making, reading and listening skills. More importantly, it requires the ability to apply these skills to different health decisions and experiences.
As defined in the Institute of Medicine report, Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion, health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” As our health care system has become more disjointed and difficult to navigate, it has become more difficult for patients to make informed health related decisions.
Imagine this. You are a successful Vice President at an agency in the city, and were just recently diagnosed with cancer. Although you’re well educated, all of a sudden you’re forced to learn terms such as neuroblastoma, chemotherapy and many others, in addition to trying to make treatment decisions about lifesaving treatments, and while trying to navigate the healthcare system. Scary.
Health Literacy in the US
Unfortunately this is a common occurrence since your level of education does not guarantee that you will have the necessary health literacy skills. According to The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), only 12% of the population has a proficient health literacy level. According to the NAAL, approximately 36% of adults in the United States have limited health literacy-22% have Basic and 14% have Below Basic health literacy. An additional 5% of the population is not literate in English.
Tips for Health Professionals
Having limited time to spend with patients that most health professionals do today, you might ask how can I make a difference? There are some wonderful resources out there to help you make small changes that won’t take any more time. I have listed a few of them here:
- Change how you communicate with your patients.
The Ask-Educate- Ask approach is a new method that combines Teach-back & Motivational interviewing. Learn more about it here.
- Treat everyone equally.
Health literacy universal precautions encourages healthcare providers to educate their patients using less complex medical terminology.
- Even just coming into your office may create more of a barrier than you may realize. Try to approach your practice with a low-literacy patient in mind.