Posted by Kimber Harding
June 3, 2015
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Did you know that nearly 9 out of 10 American adults lack the skills necessary to obtain and understand readily available health information?1
Health literacy is an important component to maintaining and improving our health. Unfortunately, many of us may feel overwhelmed or confused by the over-abundance of information available. How can we become more empowered to better manage our health? The information below provides further clarification of common health literacy related topics such as: what it is, why health literacy is important, who should care about health literacy, what’s being done to address the issue, and finally, what consumers can do to improve their health literacy.
Q: What is health literacy?
A: Are you aware how often you should be receiving preventive screening exams, or what those pamphlets at the doctor’s office really mean? Health Literacy is more than a measurement of reading skills, it is the ability to obtain, understand and use health information when making decisions regarding health and medical care.2-3
Q: Why is health literacy important?
A: Health literacy impacts our health.4 Improving health literacy can decrease death risk, reduce hospitalization and unnecessary ER visits, and increase use of preventive services.3-4 Developing health literacy can also improve one’s ability to fill out forms, share personal information (like health history), receive important screenings, manage chronic conditions, and understand how to properly use medications.3
Q: Who should care about health literacy?
A: Everyone!5 More specifically, health literacy is of particular importance for the elderly, persons with chronic illness or disability, individuals living in poverty, and immigrant populations.5
Q: What is being done to help improve health literacy?
A: Through a number of studies and reviews, several national agencies have looked into ways to improve health literacy. Based on their findings, important recommendations have been identified and several federal initiatives (i.e.
National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy,
Plain Writing Act of 2010, and
the Affordable Care Act of 2010) have been implemented to address the health literacy problem from a systematic or providers perspective.4
Q: What can we do to increase our health literacy?
A: Improving our health literacy takes time, but there are a number of things we can do. Make the most out of your visit to the doctor by:
- Taking a trusted person to your medical visit5
- Asking questions if you don’t understand something - if you still don’t understand, ask for more information (this applies to pharmacies as well as doctors and nurses)5-6
- Always bringing an up-to-date list of your medications and herbal products to your visit (
make a pill card and carry it with you)5-6
- Writing down your questions/concerns before your visit and remember to ask them5
- Asking your provider to write down information and instructions5
- If necessary, asking if the resource/material is available in large print5
- Repeating information back to your doctor/nurse – this gives you the chance to clarify information and can help avoid potentially serious mistakes6
- If you don’t speak/understand English very well, informing the doctor’s office of the need for an interpreter prior to your visit. You have the right to one at no cost to you6
Q: Is there anything else I can do to improve my health literacy?
A: Yes. Learn how to find reliable information online.6 While the internet is a great hub to find information, not all of it is credible. The following tips can help you locate credible and up to date information:
- Use government websites such as National Institutes of Health (
NIH) & Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (
- Search larger non-profit organizations like
American Heart Association &
American Cancer Society6
- If you find information that is concerning, bring it to your next appointment and discuss it with your provider6
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