Improve Your Health Literacy

Be careful about reading health books. You might die of a misprint.” –Mark Twain

The U.S. 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.” Only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Low health literacy affects people from all ages, races, education and income levels.

Importance of Health Literacy

Health literacy goes beyond general reading level and relates to better understanding and navigating the health care system. We live in an increasing consumer-centric health care environment and must collect, assimilate and take action on health information for our personal health.

Improve your health literacy to better understand:

  • Your company’s health benefits
  • Your doctor’s and pharmacist’s directions
  • Instructions on prescription bottles and treatment brochures
  • Health education materials and utilize the knowledge for personal health decisions

Improve Your Health Literacy

Oftentimes, we need to understand and process health information at the doctor’s office (which can be an intimidating place!). Prepare ahead of time for receiving information by bringing: a list of medications, a written list of questions for your doctor, and, perhaps, a trusted friend or family member. Also, engage in the teach-back method after your doctor gives you instructions. Do this by restating the instructions back to your doctor to ensure you understood correctly.

You can also improve your health literacy online. Just make sure you visit trusted, up-to-date Web sites. Government Web sites, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Library of Medicine or the United States Department of Agriculture are good sources of information. Large nonprofit organizations, like the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association, also provide useful information and links to other helpful sources.

When you have questions about information you find online, discuss it with your doctor.

On the Job

You can also take measures to meet your company’s employees at the appropriate health literacy level when communicating health-related information like health insurance benefits or wellness education. First, use information that is written at the appropriate reading level (e.g., do not distribute materials at a 10th grade reading level if the majority of employees are a 6th grade reading level). Second, try including pictures or charts. Many individuals respond better to visuals than text only. Finally, offer workshops or forums where employees can obtain more information and ask questions about information that concerns them.

Final Word

Research over the past two decades shows major shortcomings in how we present and take in health information. Improving health literacy is an important step in achieving better health outcomes and lowering health care costs. The government includes increasing the nation’s health literacy skills in its Healthy People 2020 health promotion plan. How about including increasing your own health literacy skills among your personal goals for 2012?!

Photo credit: iStockphoto

About the author: M. Courtney Hughes, PhD, is Founder of Approach Health, a data-driven health behavior change company. She is an expert in corporate disease management and wellness and enjoys working with employers on employee health promotion strategies and programs. Courtney lives in the Chicago area and can be found on Twitter as @ApproachHealth.

About the Author

Courtney Hughes

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Jarred Breed

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