What is health literacy?Back to top
“Health literacy is the degree to which consumers can obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” This includes the ability to “read, grasp, and evaluate information; understand instructions, symbols, charts, and diagrams; consider risks and benefits and make decisions to take action.” (Institute of Medicine)
Why Health Literacy?
Consumers need good health literacy skills to talk to medical professionals, to understand medical instructions, to complete insurance forms, to understand medication labels and to pay medical bills. Alarmingly, these skills are absent in more than half of the American population. (National Institutes of Health)
Health information can overwhelm consumers of all ages, races, incomes, and educational levels—not just people with limited reading skills or people for whom English is a second language. Health information provided in a stressful situation is not likely to be retained. Several factors that contribute to the problem are:
- lack of coordination among health care providers,
- confusing forms and instructions,
- insufficient time and incentives for professionals to use words that patients understand,
- differences in language and cultural preferences,
- Overuse of complex medical and technical words. (Health Literacy Action Plan, 2014)
Health Literacy Affects EveryoneBack to top
Poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person’s health than age, social and economic status, education, or ethnicity. (American Medical Association Foundation) Without a clear understanding of health information, consumers are more likely to skip necessary care, skip preventative health screenings and have higher rates of hospitalization and emergency room use. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Adding to the problem is that many consumers hide their confusion because they are too afraid to ask for help. Also, consumers 65 and older make nearly twice as many doctor office visits per year as younger consumers and they have major health literacy problems:
- 80% have difficulty using printed documents, forms and charts
- 68% have difficulty understanding calculations
- 66% are unable to understand the information about their medications. (American Medical Association)
All health care professionals should talk to patients at a level that they can understand. Poor communication, such as rushed discussions, use of medical jargon, ambiguity, and cultural differences are contributing to unsafe, poor quality care. “There are many opportunities for potential harm to patients during doctor office visits if communications are not effective.” (Paula Griswold, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Prevention of Medical Errors). The Joint Commission indicates that 65% of medical errors are caused by communication failures.
The Impact of Poor Health LiteracyBack to top
Low health literacy is a major cost in our health care system. Consumers with limited health literacy have medical expenses that are up to four times greater than patients with adequate literacy skills. The Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy report estimates that the cost of low health literacy is between $106 billion to $238 billion annually. (National Bureau of Economic Research 2011)
Health literacy is receiving attention from major health organizations. The National Institutes of Health and the Agency for Health Research and Quality sponsor a program to support health literacy research. Numerous health professional organizations—such as the American College of Physicians, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics – have made health literacy a priority issue for their members. Accreditation organizations are developing standards and audit tools for health care organizations to assess their performance in improving health literacy.
The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy of 2010 seeks to engage organizations, professionals, policymakers, communities, individuals, and families in a linked, multi-sector effort to improve health literacy. The plan identifies the following goals to create a health literate society.
- Develop and distribute accurate, accessible, and actionable health information.
- Promote changes that improve health information, communication, informed decision making, and access to health services.
- Incorporate standards-based health information and curricula in child care and education through the university level.
- Support local efforts to provide adult education, English language instruction, and culturally-appropriate health information services.
- Build partnerships, develop guidance, and change policies.
- Increase research and the development, implementation, and evaluation of practices to improve health literacy.
- Increase the dissemination and use of evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions.
Where to Improve your Health Literacy
The hope that consumers will become well-informed health care decision-makers creates an obligation for employers, providers, and payers to implement these goals and to support health literacy education and practices. The National Library of Medicine’s online tutorial, Understanding Medical Words, is an example of a positive step. (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/medicalwords.html). It helps consumers understand medical words and how to use them together. There are also several free web-based medical dictionaries and encyclopedias that can be very useful.
Another resource is the Health Literacy Basics Fact Sheet from helath.gov. http://www.health.gov/communication/literacy/quickguide/factsbasic.htm
The contents of this site include educational information only and are not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Never ignore professional medical advice or delay getting the advice because of something you have read on this site. Always seek the guidance of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions regarding your personal health or medical conditions. Reliance on any information provided on this site is solely at your risk. Call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical emergency.