What is Health Literacy?
In the report, Healthy People, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services included improved consumer health literacy and identified health literacy as an important component of health communication, medical product safety, and oral health. Health literacy is defined in Healthy People 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.”
Health literacy includes the ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, appointment slips, medical education brochures, doctor’s directions and consent forms, and the ability to negotiate complex health care systems. Health literacy is not simply the ability to read. It requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations.
Health literacy varies by context and setting and is not necessarily related to years of education or general reading ability. A person who functions adequately at home or work may have marginal or inadequate literacy in a health care environment. With the move towards a more “consumer-centric” health care system as part of an overall effort to improve the quality of health care and to reduce health care costs, individuals need to take an even more active role in health care related decisions. To accomplish this people need strong health information skills.
Why Does Health Literacy Matter?
Every day, people confront situations that involve life-changing decisions about their health. These decisions are made in places such as grocery and drug stores, workplaces, playgrounds, doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals, and around the kitchen table. Obtaining, communicating, processing, and understanding health information and services are essential steps in making appropriate health decisions; however, research indicates that today’s health information is presented in ways that are not usable by most adults. “Limited health literacy” occurs when people can’t find and use the health information and services they need.
- Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our healthcare facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities.
- Without clear information and an understanding of the information’s importance, people are more likely to skip necessary medical tests, end up in the emergency room more often, and have a harder time managing chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Whom Does Health Literacy Affect?
People of all ages, races, incomes, and educational levels can find it difficult to obtain, communicate, process, and understand health information and services. Literacy skills are only a part of health literacy. Even people with strong reading and writing skills can face health literacy challenges when they are not familiar with medical terms or how their bodies work. They have to interpret or calculate numbers or risks that could have immediate effects on their health and safety. They are diagnosed with a serious illness and are scared or confused. They have health conditions that require complicated self-care. Every organization involved in health information and services needs its own health literacy plan to improve its organizational practices to help everyone of all ages.