Health Literacy – a Magic Lever

By August 11, 2013November 4th, 2018Clinician, Consumer, ePatient
How do I take two tablets twice a day? What did the lab work show? I don’t want to take that kind of medicine. I just want to walk daughter down the aisle. My shoulder hurts when I’m trying to sleep. Can I believe what I read on the web? When do I go back to this doctor? How much will the ER visit cost? So much information and so many people join us in our journey of best health. Information can be heard or be written on paper or on the web. We could be sharing information about ourselves. Questions are asked and answered – or not. People who care about each other and very familiar with each other can struggle to communicate. Their experience, skills, language, ways of thinking and speaking are different, are diverse. Is it any wonder that sharing health information can be so hard?  Some people refer to this communication challenge as health literacy. For a long time I thought that health literacy was about being as simple as possible and I used Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics to see what grade level my writing was. Goal: 8th grade, 5th grade. (This post scores at a 9.3 grade) As my vision deteriorated I noticed that color and white space affected me. Design made a difference. As I exercise my listening muscles, I find that active listening affects the speaker and the listener.

My colleagues from the Society of Participatory Medicine, Peggy Zuckerman and Kathy Kastner have been orienting me to the vast world of health literacy. They tell me that the US Department of Health and Human Services defines health literacy as:

“The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions”

The report continues:

“Health literacy includes the ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, appointment slips, medical education brochures, doctor’s directions and consent forms, and the ability to negotiate complex health care systems. Health literacy is not simply the ability to read. It requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations.

 Health literacy varies by context and setting and is not necessarily related to years of education or general reading ability. A person who functions adequately at home or work may have marginal or inadequate literacy in a health care environment. With the move towards a more “consumer-centric” health care system as part of an overall effort to improve the quality of health care and to reduce health care costs, individuals need to take an even more active role in health care related decisions. To accomplish this people need strong health information skills.

What are the skills we need for Health Literacy?

ePatients are often faced with complex information and treatment decisions. Some of the specific tasks people are required to carry out may include:

* evaluating information for credibility and quality,

* analyzing relative risks and benefits,

* calculating dosages,

* interpreting test results, or

* locating health information.

 In order to accomplish these tasks, individuals may need to be:

* visually literate (able to understand graphs or other visual information),

* computer literate (able to operate a computer),

* information literate (able to obtain and apply relevant information), and

* numerically or computationally literate (able to calculate or reason numerically).

 Oral language skills are important as well. [People] need to articulate their health concerns and describe their symptoms accurately. They need to ask pertinent questions, and they need to understand spoken medical advice or treatment directions. In an age of shared responsibility between physician and ePatient for health care, people need strong decision-making skills. With the development of the Internet as a source of health information, health literacy may also include the ability to search the Internet and evaluate websites.

Health literacy is a magic lever of best health.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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