Talkeetna: (907) 733-2273 ~ Willow: (907) 495-4100 ~ Wasilla: (907) 376-2273

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What is Health Literacy?

chalkboard with drawing of human head and medical symbols floating around it

Taking charge of your health is good. Understanding your health and how it works is even better. For patients, health literacy is a person’s ability to receive, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate decisions about their health. To take charge and understand your health you need to be able to clearly express how and what you feel and provide vital information for your healthcare provider.

Health providers, on their part, should ensure their patients understand the conditions or diseases their patients have and how to manage them with clear instructions, especially concerning their medications.

Stephen Covey said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are, and as we are conditioned to view it.” This is true in both patients and health professionals.

A simple definition of health literacy is that it is a combined responsibility between patients and healthcare providers to communicate in ways that each other can understand.

 

Why is Health Literacy Important?

Outcomes are better when patients clearly understand why a treatment plan is prescribed. A patient who does not understand for what or why they are being treated, may discontinue the plan or misuse medications.

The average American reads at an eighth-grade level; and about twenty percent read lower. According to the US Department of Health and Social Services only 12% of U.S. adults have proficient literacy. Over 30% have trouble with common health tasks like following directions on a drug label or an immunization chart or choosing the right health insurance plan.

Health information is written and verbally explained at the college level. More often than not, healthcare providers use language and visual aids that the average American does not understand. The ability to understand health information is harder when patients are diagnosed with a serious illness or worried about a condition or treatment.

Often, patients cannot explain the symptoms they feel or how their bodies work. Some may attempt to use medical terms they do not understand completely; resulting in a misdiagnosis.

This confusion or embarrassment when talking about health issues causes people to avoid getting medical attention until a critical event happens. These situations cause frustration, mistrust, confusion and cost the healthcare system in general much more money.

 

How Can We Improve Health Literacy?

Healthcare providers work to improve health literacy by providing a shame-free environment that encourages patients to share personal information and to tell them what they do not understand. One method that Sunshine practices to help patients understand health information is called the teach-back method. It is not a test for patients but rather a way to check for understanding and, if needed, re-explain and check again.

  • Providers use plain language to discuss the health issue.
  • The patient or a family member explains in their own words what their provider wants them to do.
  • If there is a misunderstanding the provider will notice and re-explain using visuals or different words until the patient understands and can teach the information back.

Studies have shown that 40-80% of the medical information patients are told during office visits is forgotten immediately, and nearly half of the information retained is incorrect.

 

~ U.S. DHSS Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

As a patient, you can improve your healthcare by asking your healthcare team questions and providing detailed information about your health. Your medical team knows a lot about a wide variety of health topics but they don’t know a lot about each individual patient. All patients are different with different medical histories, lifestyles and goals. The personal information you share and the questions you ask help them provide better care specifically for you. Quality care is a team effort.

This nurse practitioner urges her patients to pay attention to their health and bring a list of their questions to each visit.

Prepare for appointments ahead of time. Write your questions down and take notes during your appointments. You might have questions about your medicines, tests or surgery you need.

Each visit with your medical team is different but here are ten commonly asked questions that patients might ask during an appointment:

  • What is the test for?
  • How many times have you done this procedure?
  • When will I get the results?
  • Why do I need this treatment?
  • Are there any alternatives?
  • What are the possible complications?
  • Which hospital is best for my needs?
  • How do you spell the name of that drug?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • Will this medicine interact with medicines that I’m already taking?

A simple question can help you feel more confident about your medical care and give you more tools to better care of yourself, or save your life.

Image attribution from athree23 licensed under Pixabay License.

Curtis Harvie, DNP, FNP-BC, AHN-BC

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