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Addressing the Problem of Lack of Health Literacy

You are a healthcare professional, with a wealth of complicated knowledge and a sharp mind capable of complex critical thinking. But today, you’ve just been put in charge of executing and overseeing the imminent launch of #Starship, #SpaceX’s latest and largest interplanetary space transport system. Human lives are at stake, not to mention billions of dollars. Are you calm and comfortable making all decisions necessary? Everyone is depending on YOU. 

What is your rocket science literacy level? While this scary and overwhelming situation may seem outrageous, this is exactly how many patients feel when confronted with medical information, especially when they are affected by a diagnosis, chronic condition, extreme pain, a large care team that may be presenting differing opinions, interpreting test results and more.

Do you know the health literacy level of your audience—your patients? Are you providing them with appropriate resources for their health literacy level so they are able to make well-informed decisions? 

As a healthcare professional, it can be hard to recognize if you are presenting your patients with information and material that is matched to their health literacy level. Often, you may get no feedback, as patients may be embarrassed or scared to admit when they do not understand or are confused. You are also used to communicating with other healthcare professionals that speak the same “language” as you. Your patients do not. 

What is Health Literacy?

  • Personal health literacy is the ability level of an individual to find, understand and be able to use information and services to make informed health-related decisions and actions for themselves or others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which an organization makes their information equally accessible to all users, regardless of their personal health literacy, including their ability to find, understand and use this information and the organization’s services to make informed health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Why Does the Health Literacy of Your Audience and Organization Matter?

Health literacy is important for every person because we all need to be able to find, understand and use health information and services. If you are a health services provider, this is especially important for the content you provide to your patients and potential patients. 

Taking care of our health needs to be part of our everyday life, not just when we have a medical problem or an appointment with our doctor or end up in the hospital. Health literacy helps us prevent health problems and our health. Health literacy also allows us to better manage those problems when they do happen, whether expected or unexpected.

Put yourself in your patient’s shoes. Even people who have a high reading comprehension level and are comfortable using numbers and math still face health literacy issues because:

  • They aren’t familiar with medical terms or how their bodies work.
  • They are expected to interpret statistics and evaluate risks and benefits that affect their health and safety or that of a loved one, and they have no experience or education in how to do so.
  • They are diagnosed with a serious illness and are scared, confused, anxious, possibly in pain or medicated and don’t want to make a “wrong” decision.
  • They are in extreme pain and just want the pain to stop.
  • They have health conditions that require complicated self-care, which takes a mental and emotional toll to the point it can open windows for mistakes.
  • They are voting on an issue affecting the community’s health, which they do not have a background in, and relying on unfamiliar technical information.

What Does Health Literacy Do?

Health literacy:

  • Emphasizes people’s ability to use health information rather than just understand it
  • Focuses on the ability of individuals to make “well-informed” decisions rather than “appropriate” ones
  • For example, an individual may make what they feel their doctor thinks is an “appropriate” decision instead of making the decision themselves from being well-informed
  • Incorporates a public health perspective, which promotes better overall public health 
  • Acknowledges that organizations have a responsibility to address health literacy

For more information on Health Literacy, visit the Centers for Disease Control’s Health Literacy website. If you need help evaluating your material to be sure you are providing the best content for all your patients, Points Group’s medical publishing division can help. We have medical writers and editors experienced in writing and editing content to improve any organization’s health literacy.

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