By Cyndi Lieske and Beth Adams
Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.
People with limited health literacy are more likely to have chronic conditions, are less likely to effectively manage their health and tend to have higher health care costs. Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using basic health information. Challenges include:
- Navigating the health care system, including filling out complex forms and finding a health care provider;
- Understanding test results such as cholesterol and blood sugar levels;
- Choosing between health plans and comparing prescription drug coverage;
- Sorting through large amounts of health information, including separating myths from facts;
- Managing chronic diseases, such as knowing the symptoms of low blood sugar AND how to correct it; and
- Knowing what each medication is for and taking the right medicine at the right time.
Health literacy challenges are greater for older adults than younger populations. They have more chronic illnesses and use health care services at higher rates. Limitations of physical and/or cognitive functioning add another layer of difficulty. Even mild vision and hearing loss can make it difficult to process information that is otherwise understandable.
How health care providers present information, availability of culturally appropriate information, the environment in which it’s presented and are significant, contributing factors to health literacy.
Knowing how to talk with your doctor and other health care staff is one part of health literacy. Here are some ideas to help you communicate:
- Write down your questions before your appointment. Record their responses.
- Write down new information from your doctor and their staff. Ask them to repeat and further explain if it is not clear to you.
- Ask clarifying questions or statements such as “So since this new pill is twice the strength, I just need to take 1 pill rather than 2. Correct?”
- It’s okay to say you don’t understand something! Let your doctor and others know that you do not understand what they are telling you. Health care providers are often rushed and use a lot of medical terminology. Background noise can also make it difficult to process what is being said. Ask your doctor, nurse, pharmacist and others to use plain, non-medical words.
- Get a phone number for the nurse or clinic, so you can call with questions you think of after you have left or if you have forgotten something.
- Volunteer to go with a friend or loved one to their next medical appointment. Help them take notes and ask questions.