Health Literacy Touches Us All

Here’s a statistic that just blew me away: “Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our health care facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities” (US Dept. of Heath & Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention & Promotion, [ODPP] 2010).

Wow. Almost 90 percent of adult Americans can’t completely understand  information that can treat illness, promote better health, or even prevent death. With health reform prompting many system changes over the next few years, how are people supposed to “take charge” of their health if they can’t understand what they’re supposed to take charge of? Heck, I know people with advanced degrees that can’t make sense of some of it.

Health literacy is a person’s ability to comprehend health information and use it to make informed decisions about health and medical care. Those with limited health literacy have problems filling out medical forms, finding doctors, managing chronic disease, taking prescription drugs, or just taking better care of their own, and their family’s health. (MedlinePlus).

The Department of Health and Human Services is well aware of this national problem and has an action plan to improve health literacy and empower patients. The ODPP says “the plan is based on the principles that (1) everyone has the right to health information that helps them make informed decisions and (2) health services should be delivered in ways that are understandable and beneficial to health, longevity, and quality of life.”

According to The Center for Healthcare Strategies, people with lower health literacy had more problems managing chronic diseases like asthma, have a harder time dealing with the bureaucracy and complexities of the health system, have more difficulty obtaining some tests or see specialists, have higher health costs, and poorer health status.

“The direct medical costs of low functional literacy are financed through additional hospital and office visits, longer hospital stays, extra tests, procedures, and prescriptions.”

Health literacy impacts all of us: many patients that do not have functional health literacy end up in the emergency room more often, use more clinical services, incur more out of pocket expenses, and are more likely to receive some type of government assistance (Medicare or Medicaid).

Some doctors don’t take the time to explain things in simple terms. And patients with low literacy skills are often afraid to say the don’t understand or can’t read instructions because of embarrassment.  It is difficult for them to look up information on the Internet, and they may be reluctant to ask for help or know where to turn to get it.

The Institute of Medicine issued an extensive report several years ago about the problem of health literacy and urged all professionals to take literacy skills into account when interacting with patients. A national, non-profit coalition of over 400 organizations called The Partnership for Clear Health Communication, is working to improve knowledge and develop ways to improve health literacy and positively impact health outcomes. They advocate more training, education, and health literacy resources for professionals that interact with patients most often. Their signature program, “Ask Me 3” focuses on patient-centered communications approach that addresses

  • What is My Main Problem? > diagnosis
  • What Do I Need to Do? > Treatment
  • Why Is It Important For Me to do This? > Context

Focusing on three simple questions helps address the literacy issue while giving the provider some clues as to where specific challenges might lie. The shared responsibility for health communication provides patients with the health information they need and how to act upon it, while providing a consistent approach to provider-patient dialogue.

Additionally, printed materials should be simplified, and make extensive use of illustrations or photos. Video or audio presentations can also assist in a patient’s understanding, especially when it comes to managing long-term chronic diseases like asthma or diabetes.

As someone who creates health communications for a living, I couldn’t agree more with these strategies. Too often we neglect to think of our target audience when developing health information. It’s not the client, or the marketing director. It’s the patient.

It’s not just those that struggle with health literacy that benefit from these approaches. Whether or not you consider yourself “health literate,” don’t be afraid to ask your provider to explain something again if you don’t understand it. Ask for simple descriptions, examples, or analogies. For instance, what does taking a pill 3x a day mean – breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or every 8 hours? What happens if you skip a dose? Don’t leave the office until you are sure you get it.

Improving health literacy boosts compliance, saves time, and reduce costs. That’s something we can all benefit from.