Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Importance of Health Literacy

The challenges of health literacy and how we can improve it 
One aspect of healthcare that needs extra attention is health literacy. Health literacy is defined as the ability to obtain and understand health information so that the appropriate decisions can be made. Even if someone can gain access to health care, it may not be helpful if they don’t understand what is going on. It is surprisingly common to not have full understanding of your personal health.Some common factors in people who may face challenges with their health literacy:

  • Demographics
  • Communication skills
  • Severity of illness
  • Culture

Demographics and Cultural Competency

Demographics are very important to consider in health literacy. These are characteristics like age, gender, ethnicity, education and income. Patients who are young or elderly may have a tough time understanding their health care. This is especially apparent when they must depend on someone else for interpretation or decision making. Elderly patients may have a harder time reading or hearing a doctor’s instructions.
Health literacy can be an issue with different genders, especially when it comes to reproductive organs/genitals. Problems arise when individuals are unfamiliar with their anatomy and how it works. Birth control options are plentiful and not everyone understands the differences between them. Literacy levels decrease with lower income and education, signals of health care disparity. It may be hard to understand certain terminology with less education and lower income may mean lower quality facilities and care.
Ethnic minorities may run into problems with the cultural competency of their healthcare professionals. Care may be largely dependent on if a translator is needed or available. There is also a large difference between Eastern and Western medicine. Someone familiar to holistic medicine (typical in the East) may feel panic and confusion with modern Western medicine. It is important for professionals to have cultural sensitivity and to have the proper resources for language barriers.

Severity of the Illness

Severe illnesses or treatments that require complicated at-home care can increase the chances of low health literacy. If the patient is confused or scared, they may not have full understanding of what is going on. Shocking news (such as HIV, AIDS, cancer, etc) may not sink in right away or the patient may be in denial. Psychiatric services may be required and are not always given.

Communication Skills

The communication skills of both the health care professional and the patient are important here. A doctor or nurse must have the ability to properly communicate any changes in diagnosis, treatments, medications or care. It is extremely helpful if the patient also has strong communication skills. Their ability to understand and ask questions is crucial to their health.

How Healthcare Professionals Can Promote Health Literacy

  1. Provide pamphlets with pictures, clear labels and instructions. Make them available in multiple languages.
  2. Ask open-ended questions that make the patient say more than “yes” or “no”.
  3. Request the patient “teach back” or “show back” the instructions to demonstrate they fully understand.
  4. Use simple language that is impossible to misinterpret (“swallow” instead of “take”, “as needed for pain” instead of “PRN”, “harmful” instead of “adverse”, etc).
  5. Speak/write at grade level.
  6. Provide clear prescription instructions and properly explain during the appointment.
  7. Let them know who they can call if they have questions.

How You Can Increase Your Own Health Literacy

  1. Ask questions! Ask your doctor specifically what they mean and to clear up any uncertainties.
  2. Ask your doctor to slow down when they are explaining.
  3. Ask your nurse about what you can expect from your appointment.
  4. Bring your medications to your appointment and go over them with your nurse, doctor or pharmacist.
  5. Bring a list of questions/concerns you have so you don’t forget them.
  6. Closely read any handouts or pamphlets you have been given.
  7. Call ahead to ask about translation services.
  8. Call your insurance company. Speak to their on-call nurses 24/7 if you have questions.
  9. Most important: find a health care professional you feel comfortable talking to. If you don’t feel comfortable asking your doctor questions, your local pharmacist is an excellent resource. They can provide a ton of information, on more than just medications, and they’re usually happy to help!

We can improve health literacy with communication, empathy, cultural competency, strategic planning, and new ways to reinforce understanding. Take a minute to look at this example assessment of health literacy and see how you do.



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