Celebrating Health Literacy Month

Melissa Fox, MHA, FACMPE,  FACHE

Advocating for Easily Accessible Health Information

October marks another celebration of Health Literacy Month. It’s time to shine a spotlight on making health information easy to get and use.

“At Acenda, we know that health literacy matters for everyone,” says Bridget DeFiccio, LPC, Senior Vice President, Integrated Health. “When a person understands essential health information, it helps inform them to make the best decision for their personal health and lifestyle”.

Here, we’ll highlight more about health literacy and why it’s important. We’ll wrap up with ways you can be a true partner in your healthcare.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is about information and healthcare. It refers to how well a person can understand and utilize health information. It also covers their ability to work with the healthcare system to meet their needs. Health information is all around us, but it can feel like an overload at times. Even a well-prepared person can feel lost.

The good news is that everyone can improve their health literacy. It’s a set of skills you gain and use every day. With some practice, you can learn better health literacy skills and become an advocate for your own health.

What skills are needed for health literacy?

Health literacy requires more than just knowing how to read and write. It’s about learning and using information in different ways. Here’s a breakdown of several skills a person needs to be health literate.

  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Self-awareness
  • Recognizing a problem
  • Knowing how and when to seek help
  • Computing numbers
  • Listening
  • Understanding instructions or a diagnosis
  • Following directions
  • Communicating verbally (or through sign language)
  • Knowledge of basic medical and health language

Working with health information is a complex process, and it’s easy to see how a person could fall behind in one or more of these areas. That’s why the awareness created by Health Literacy Month is so valuable.

Why is health literacy so important?

Low health literacy puts people at risk. They may not seek help when they should or miss essential information when talking with their doctor. Vulnerable people need more support to make sure they get the best care possible.

Researchers estimate that 80 million people in the United States have low health literacy. These population groups are most at risk:

  • Being 65 or older
  • Lower education level
  • Lower income level
  • Being a non-native English speaker
  • Having a chronic condition
  • Race or ethnic background
  • Having a disability
  • Children whose parents have lower health literacy

Recognizing symptoms and seeking help makes a difference. It means people can treat problems early when care is easier and often less expensive. A person can also learn how to make healthy choices to avoid chronic issues, but if they cannot seek, understand, and use health information easily, their risk of developing health problems goes up.

The healthcare industry has a role in the process, too. Healthcare providers can help people stay well and treat conditions with more success. By adjusting how they share information, they can support those who need the most help.

How can low health literacy lead to health problems?

Consider the list of skills needed to have high health literacy. If some of those skills are weak, a person could miss vital information they need to catch and treat a health problem. Even people motivated to stay healthy may struggle if they struggle with information.

Let’s take a look at diabetes and the low health literacy can impact a person’s self-care.

Diabetes care

To maintain good health, a person with diabetes needs to keep track of several tasks, including:

  • Taking medication on a schedule
  • Refilling medication
  • Measuring blood sugar levels
  • Understanding when something is wrong and what to do
  • Eating a healthy diet, avoiding certain drinks and foods
  • Exercising regularly
  • Being aware of several symptoms every day
  • Being prepared for an emergency or traveling with medication

Diabetes care is a long-term and complex issue. A person with low health literacy may have trouble meeting all their needs. They may need more expensive care and develop more serious health issues. Here are some examples of how low health literacy could make a negative impact.

Lower education

  • May not understand some medical terms
  • May have difficulty understanding instructions
  • May struggle with how medication and food work to treat their condition

Language barriers

  • May interfere with understanding vital information
  • Asking questions could be challenging
  • May misunderstand instructions

Lower income

  • May miss appointments because they can’t afford gas or bus fare
  • May not be able to afford nutritious food
Tips for being a true partner in your healthcare

You can be a good advocate for your healthcare. It may take some practice and preparation, but it’s worth the effort. Here are some simple ways to understand health information better, no matter how you use it.

Know your medications and medical history

You don’t need to keep all your medication details in your head. Bring a notebook with a list or bring everything with you if that’s easier. The medication you take can make a big difference with treatments, other health conditions, and symptoms.

Ask questions and for a review of the main points

Medical visits can include a lot of information. Sometimes it can feel like you’re drawing in information, making it easy to forget or miss details. It’s okay to interrupt and ask questions, even in the middle of explaining something. Also, ask for a quick recap of the main points at the end. Don’t worry about feeling awkward. Doctors and nurses want you to understand the information they give you.

Bring someone with you to appointments

It often helps to have another set of ears and eyes in the room. This may be especially helpful if you are a non-native speaker, older, or worry about remembering everything. You can review the information together and make sure the next step is clear.

Ask for information in different forms

People learn in different ways. It can help to get the same information in different formats. When you’re looking for answers or going to an appointment, look for options. Look for information in printed copies, images, video, and digital. This can help your conversation sink in better, too.

Read more population health articles on the AIHI Blog