What Is Health Literacy?

Reviewed Jun 2, 2017

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Summary

  • Only 12 percent of people in the U.S. are health literate.
  • Health literacy improves health care and reduces costs.
  • Ask questions at your next health care visit.

A lack of health literacy can interfere with proper health care. It is also one of the most overlooked health related factors for providers and those seeking care. Only 12 percent of people in the U.S. are thought to be health literate. So what exactly is it?

Health literacy concerns how well a person finds, uses, and understands basic health information and services. This has a direct effect on the person’s health care. A person who cannot grasp what her doctor is saying will have a hard time following his advice. She will also have a hard time making informed choices about her health care. This can happen when people are not familiar with medical terms or with how their bodies work. Doctors play an important role in improving health literacy too. They can help people become more health literate by explaining things more simply. 

Risks of poor health literacy

The risks of having a poor level of health literacy include:

  • Not taking meds the right way
  • Misreading test results
  • Not getting needed tests
  • More hospital visits
  • More trips to the ER
  • More health problems
  • Poorer general health
  • More money spent on health care
  • Less understanding of health insurance
  • Less use of online health info and care

What you can do about it

There are a few things you can do to improve your own health literacy. Be ready for your next health care visit:

  • Bring an adult friend or family with you.
  • Bring your medications with you, including over the counter ones.
  • Bring a list of questions to ask.
  • Bring up any part of the doctor’s orders that you don’t get.

Who is most affected?

Everyone could benefit from a better level of health literacy. Certain groups of people are often more vulnerable.

Older adults often have more physical health conditions to deal with. At times, they may have a harder time hearing and/or understanding medical information shared during visits. Connecting more older adults to online resources can help, along with providers taking a little more time to be clear about their message. With more adults living longer and longer, improving their health literacy is a real concern.

Another group of people needing additional support are those who speak little or no English. Hiring diverse, multicultural staff able to speak many different languages, and understand cultural differences can greatly improve this area. It also helps to have health information printed in as many languages as possible.

Hearing a new diagnosis can also make people shut down. When this happens they often can’t hear anything the doctors are saying because of their worry. Their experience gets in the way of understanding health information. It really helps to have that friend or family member present to hear what is being said. Doctors also need to try to slow down, understanding this news might be scary. Many try to learn better ways to share important medical information in a less frightening way.

Improving health literacy

The health industry is striving to promote better health literacy. Doctors and other health care workers are being urged to speak and write more plainly. Much of this is supported by federal policy, such as the Affordable Care Act. The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy also directly targets this issue.

Many people now realize that better health literacy means better health care and reduced costs. There is a renewed effort to put health care information in plain terms.

Resources

Easy-to-Read Health Books
www.iha4health.org/our-products

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Quick Guide to Health Literacy
www.health.gov/communication/literacy/quickguide/factsbasic.htm

By Kevin Rizzo
Source: National Network of Libraries of Medicine, http://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/hlthlit.html; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.health.gov/communication/hlactionplan/pdf/Health_Lit_Action_Plan_Summary.pdf; American Association for the Advancement of Science/EurekAlert, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/cumc-phl081214.php; http://health.gov/communication/literacy/issuebrief/; www.hrsa.gov/publichealth/healthliteracy/; www.health.gov/communication/literacy/; www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html
Reviewed by Nancy Norman, MD, MPH, Medical Director of Integration, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • Only 12 percent of people in the U.S. are health literate.
  • Health literacy improves health care and reduces costs.
  • Ask questions at your next health care visit.

A lack of health literacy can interfere with proper health care. It is also one of the most overlooked health related factors for providers and those seeking care. Only 12 percent of people in the U.S. are thought to be health literate. So what exactly is it?

Health literacy concerns how well a person finds, uses, and understands basic health information and services. This has a direct effect on the person’s health care. A person who cannot grasp what her doctor is saying will have a hard time following his advice. She will also have a hard time making informed choices about her health care. This can happen when people are not familiar with medical terms or with how their bodies work. Doctors play an important role in improving health literacy too. They can help people become more health literate by explaining things more simply. 

Risks of poor health literacy

The risks of having a poor level of health literacy include:

  • Not taking meds the right way
  • Misreading test results
  • Not getting needed tests
  • More hospital visits
  • More trips to the ER
  • More health problems
  • Poorer general health
  • More money spent on health care
  • Less understanding of health insurance
  • Less use of online health info and care

What you can do about it

There are a few things you can do to improve your own health literacy. Be ready for your next health care visit:

  • Bring an adult friend or family with you.
  • Bring your medications with you, including over the counter ones.
  • Bring a list of questions to ask.
  • Bring up any part of the doctor’s orders that you don’t get.

Who is most affected?

Everyone could benefit from a better level of health literacy. Certain groups of people are often more vulnerable.

Older adults often have more physical health conditions to deal with. At times, they may have a harder time hearing and/or understanding medical information shared during visits. Connecting more older adults to online resources can help, along with providers taking a little more time to be clear about their message. With more adults living longer and longer, improving their health literacy is a real concern.

Another group of people needing additional support are those who speak little or no English. Hiring diverse, multicultural staff able to speak many different languages, and understand cultural differences can greatly improve this area. It also helps to have health information printed in as many languages as possible.

Hearing a new diagnosis can also make people shut down. When this happens they often can’t hear anything the doctors are saying because of their worry. Their experience gets in the way of understanding health information. It really helps to have that friend or family member present to hear what is being said. Doctors also need to try to slow down, understanding this news might be scary. Many try to learn better ways to share important medical information in a less frightening way.

Improving health literacy

The health industry is striving to promote better health literacy. Doctors and other health care workers are being urged to speak and write more plainly. Much of this is supported by federal policy, such as the Affordable Care Act. The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy also directly targets this issue.

Many people now realize that better health literacy means better health care and reduced costs. There is a renewed effort to put health care information in plain terms.

Resources

Easy-to-Read Health Books
www.iha4health.org/our-products

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Quick Guide to Health Literacy
www.health.gov/communication/literacy/quickguide/factsbasic.htm

By Kevin Rizzo
Source: National Network of Libraries of Medicine, http://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/hlthlit.html; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.health.gov/communication/hlactionplan/pdf/Health_Lit_Action_Plan_Summary.pdf; American Association for the Advancement of Science/EurekAlert, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/cumc-phl081214.php; http://health.gov/communication/literacy/issuebrief/; www.hrsa.gov/publichealth/healthliteracy/; www.health.gov/communication/literacy/; www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html
Reviewed by Nancy Norman, MD, MPH, Medical Director of Integration, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • Only 12 percent of people in the U.S. are health literate.
  • Health literacy improves health care and reduces costs.
  • Ask questions at your next health care visit.

A lack of health literacy can interfere with proper health care. It is also one of the most overlooked health related factors for providers and those seeking care. Only 12 percent of people in the U.S. are thought to be health literate. So what exactly is it?

Health literacy concerns how well a person finds, uses, and understands basic health information and services. This has a direct effect on the person’s health care. A person who cannot grasp what her doctor is saying will have a hard time following his advice. She will also have a hard time making informed choices about her health care. This can happen when people are not familiar with medical terms or with how their bodies work. Doctors play an important role in improving health literacy too. They can help people become more health literate by explaining things more simply. 

Risks of poor health literacy

The risks of having a poor level of health literacy include:

  • Not taking meds the right way
  • Misreading test results
  • Not getting needed tests
  • More hospital visits
  • More trips to the ER
  • More health problems
  • Poorer general health
  • More money spent on health care
  • Less understanding of health insurance
  • Less use of online health info and care

What you can do about it

There are a few things you can do to improve your own health literacy. Be ready for your next health care visit:

  • Bring an adult friend or family with you.
  • Bring your medications with you, including over the counter ones.
  • Bring a list of questions to ask.
  • Bring up any part of the doctor’s orders that you don’t get.

Who is most affected?

Everyone could benefit from a better level of health literacy. Certain groups of people are often more vulnerable.

Older adults often have more physical health conditions to deal with. At times, they may have a harder time hearing and/or understanding medical information shared during visits. Connecting more older adults to online resources can help, along with providers taking a little more time to be clear about their message. With more adults living longer and longer, improving their health literacy is a real concern.

Another group of people needing additional support are those who speak little or no English. Hiring diverse, multicultural staff able to speak many different languages, and understand cultural differences can greatly improve this area. It also helps to have health information printed in as many languages as possible.

Hearing a new diagnosis can also make people shut down. When this happens they often can’t hear anything the doctors are saying because of their worry. Their experience gets in the way of understanding health information. It really helps to have that friend or family member present to hear what is being said. Doctors also need to try to slow down, understanding this news might be scary. Many try to learn better ways to share important medical information in a less frightening way.

Improving health literacy

The health industry is striving to promote better health literacy. Doctors and other health care workers are being urged to speak and write more plainly. Much of this is supported by federal policy, such as the Affordable Care Act. The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy also directly targets this issue.

Many people now realize that better health literacy means better health care and reduced costs. There is a renewed effort to put health care information in plain terms.

Resources

Easy-to-Read Health Books
www.iha4health.org/our-products

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Quick Guide to Health Literacy
www.health.gov/communication/literacy/quickguide/factsbasic.htm

By Kevin Rizzo
Source: National Network of Libraries of Medicine, http://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/hlthlit.html; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.health.gov/communication/hlactionplan/pdf/Health_Lit_Action_Plan_Summary.pdf; American Association for the Advancement of Science/EurekAlert, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/cumc-phl081214.php; http://health.gov/communication/literacy/issuebrief/; www.hrsa.gov/publichealth/healthliteracy/; www.health.gov/communication/literacy/; www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html
Reviewed by Nancy Norman, MD, MPH, Medical Director of Integration, Beacon Health Options

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical or health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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