You’ve probably had the experience of talking to a doctor or medical provider, yet coming away from the conversation without a clue about what they meant or what to do next. Medical and public health experts increasingly are studying a concept called “health literacy”: like the ability to read a book, health literacy is the ability to understand and advocate for one’s health.
According to the U.S. government, many populations are at risk for lower health literacy, including older adults, individuals from low socioeconomic status, and those from non-white racial or ethnic groups. Individuals may have low health literacy for a variety of reasons, including being non-English speaking, having lower educational attainment, or being generally underserved by medical providers.
Health literacy has significant consequences for both individuals and for the wider medical system. In one study of heart patients, those with higher health literacy showed overall better physical and mental health. This included greater physical activity, better diet, lower likelihood of smoking, and lower rates of obesity – all health attributes which are linked to cardiovascular health and survivorship. Health literacy also is important because unlike some factors (genes, gender, ethnicity), it can be promoted in order to help individuals better navigate the healthcare system and improve their mental and physical health.
Providers can help improve health literacy by giving patients information in a variety of methods (verbal, written, videos, models), speaking at a level and in a language which the patient can understand, and organize information to highlight and repeat the most important points. Individuals can build their health literacy by learning more about any conditions they have, utilizing a multitude of resources for information, and continuing to ask questions of their healthcare providers to increase understand. Health literacy benefits the individual, the medical provider, and the larger health system.