Health Literacy: What It Is and Why It Matters?

Photo of doctor meeting with patient

Your doctor has given you a new diagnosis or prescription. Now what? 

That’s where health literacy comes in.

“It’s the ability of an individual to understand basic health information well enough to provide adequate care for himself or herself,” says Cynthia Adams, RN, a diabetes educator with University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center

Health literacy is important for many reasons. If patients don’t have a good grasp of their medical issues or medications, they can do things that make the condition worse. 

“For example, a person with diabetes needs to be careful to eat the right amount of carbohydrates, or carbs for short, which are foods and drinks that turn to sugar when they are digested,” Adams says. “Eating or drinking too many or too few carbs can make blood sugar rise.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health literacy affects people’s ability to:

  • Navigate the health care system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services
  • Share personal information, such as health history, with providers
  • Engage in self-care and chronic-disease management
  • Understand mathematical concepts such as probability and risk

Health literacy is the responsibility of the patient, certainly. But it’s also the responsibility of health care providers and public health systems. Many factors come into play, including culture, language barriers, and the communication skills of patients and medical professionals. Understanding these factors and seeking to overcome them is essential.

Citing a variety of recent studies, the National Network of Libraries of Medicine highlighted just a few of the negative outcomes associated with low health literacy:

  • People with low health literacy have a lower likelihood of getting flu shots, understanding medical labels and instructions, and a greater likelihood of taking medicines incorrectly compared with adults with higher health literacy 
  • Individuals with limited health literacy reported poorer health status and were less likely to use preventative care
  • Individuals with low levels of health literacy are more likely to be hospitalized and have bad disease outcomes 
  • Inpatient spending increases by approximately $993 for patients with limited health literacy 
  • After controlling for relevant covariates, lower health literacy scores were associated with high mortality rates within a Medicare managed care setting
  • The annual cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy was $106 billion to $238 billion

As a patient, a parent or a caregiver, the most important thing you can do to improve your health literacy is to ask questions, Adams said.  

If the doctor gives you a new diagnosis, ask every question that comes to mind until you are sure you understand the basics. Request handouts and look into classes or support groups on the condition. And take advantage of the hospital’s patient learning channel, which provides web-based medical information.

When you pick up your medicine, have the pharmacist explain what it’s for and how often to take it, including any special instructions.

“So make sure you understand about your medical conditions and your medicines so that you can take good care of yourself,” Adams concludes.

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