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If you have ever watched a medical drama on TV or listened to two physicians speak to one another about a patient, you may have experienced the feeling of what feels like listening to someone speak a foreign language. However, this “foreign language” can be crucial information to understanding your general wellbeing! With October being Health Literacy Month, LIG Global breaks down what health literacy is, how it translates to health inequities, and how to best address gaps in health literacy.
Health literacy can be broken into two sectors: personal and organizational. Personal health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others,” while organizational health literacy is defined as “the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” This division of health literacy interestingly places a responsibility on institutions to actively engage with individuals to help them not only understand healthcare jargon but also be able to use it. Interestingly, low levels of health literacy are rather common; 36% of people in the US have below basic or basic health literacy levels. Detection of low levels of health literacy may be difficult to detect, as an individual’s health literacy may fluctuate depending on experiences; for example, a person who normally has an intermediate level of health literacy may be limited to basic health literacy during times of stress, such as when receiving a high risk diagnosis, since stress is known to make it harder for people to process information. Some demographics for those who have been identified to have below basic levels of health literacy include living below the poverty level, being 65+ years old, having no insurance/having only Medicaid/Medicare, being Black or Hispanic, and self-reporting poor health.
Low levels of health literacy do not only create confusion for patients but also can have impacts to a person’s health, such as being unable to understand a diagnosis and treat it, being more likely to be hospitalized, and having poorer ability to manage chronic diseases. Even more alarming, these implications are not limited to an individual; an individual with low health literacy is likely to have worse preventative care and health outcomes for their children, leading to an aggressive cycle of diminished health for families. Understanding the demographics of who is most at risk for low levels of health literacy and how it impacts their wellbeing, it is crucial that there is outreach implemented to educate people about health literacy, in a manner that empowers them to confidently comprehend and utilize healthcare jargon to better their health. Some of the key ways to promote health literacy have been identified as (1) increasing cultural competency, (2) using a teach-back method in healthcare settings, and (3) increasing the dissemination of health and science education.
Increasing cultural competency comes in many forms and would require organizations to reflect on who they serve. Whether that means increasing the number of translators present on site or rewording pamphlets and information in a way that is best understood by the specific populations, it is without question that institutions would need to remove their “one-size-fits-all” approach to communicating medicinal information and focus more on the difference in interpretation and understanding by various cultures. The teach-back method is an effective way to ensure that the information being communicated is fully understood by the patient. This method involves the physician explaining the health information, assessing the patient’s understanding using quiz-like questions, re-explaining any information as needed, and allowing the patient to explain the information back to the physician to verify their understanding. This method would require healthcare providers to commit more time to their interactions with patients and although this may seem costly in the short-term, it will actually be beneficial in the long-term as there will be a reduced likelihood of re-hospitalization or worsening of symptoms. Lastly, an effective way for people to become more familiar and comfortable with health and science terminology is by sheer exposure. The more time an individual spends learning about these health topics in their education, the more confident they will feel discussing it later on. By implementing a more thorough curriculum on health in all years of education, health literacy can be improved and have lasting effects on individuals.
While this is certainly an initiative that will require extensive effort from organizations and institutions involved with healthcare, it is without doubt a worthwhile endeavor. Starting at the level of large institutions, meaningful change can be instilled into our healthcare system that will enable people from all backgrounds to reap the most of their doctor’s visits and ultimately keep them happy and healthy.