By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations
In October, pink starts to appear on shelves and in the media. Breast Cancer Awareness Month (sometimes dubbed “Pinktober”) is an incredibly successful campaign. But it’s not the only public health initiative in October. This month is also Health Literacy Month, a less well known but vitally important campaign and concept.
Health Literacy for Patients
It’s still a relatively new concept, but in brief, health literacy is the idea that both health and literacy are essential resources for everyday living. It is defined as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) outlined three basic levels of health literacy: functional, conceptual, and empowerment.
Functional health literacy is the ability to read. If you’re reading this article, you’re also able to read medical consent forms, appointment schedules, doctors’ notes, and the labels and instructions on medicine. Count yourself lucky – 32 million American adults cannot read. That’s 14 percent of our population. An additional 21 percent of American adults read below a 5th grade level, leaving them woefully underprepared for sometimes complex written instructions from doctors, nurses, and pharmacists.
Conceptual literacy refers to the skills developed over our lifetime to seek out, understand, evaluate, and use health information and concepts. Conceptual literacy helps us enjoy a better quality of life, make informed choices about our healthcare, and reduce health risks.
Health literacy empowers individuals to understand their rights as patients and navigate the healthcare system at large. Health literate people are informed consumers with regard to the health risks of products and services. They understand options offered by health care providers. A group of educated, health literate people can come together to improve health for all through political action, advocacy, or social movements.
Also included in health literacy? Numeracy skills. Just choosing a health plan requires math to calculate premiums, copays, and deductibles, and to factor all three into your budget. Understanding a nutrition label requires math skills, as do calculating cholesterol levels and measuring medication. For people with diabetes, math is a factor each time they use insulin as they take into account their current blood sugar and/or the carbohydrates they’ve ingested.
Improving Health Literacy
According to the Institute of Medicine, 90 million Americans lack proper health literacy skills. At a time when healthcare costs are still rising, it’s estimated that a health literate society could save $73 billion in excess spending. The health benefits on an individual level could be astonishing.
For starters, we must work as a nation to improve our literacy rate – we have not improved in ten years. But there are organizations, like the American Library Association, working towards greater literacy. Learn more about their work here.
Providers play a vital role in improving health literacy as well. First providers must learn communication techniques, such as plain speech (providing the most important information first, breaking down complex information into smaller, understandable pieces, using the active voice, and generally foregoing technical terms in favor of simple language, and explaining technical terms when necessary.)
Cultural competence is part of provider literacy, too. Cultural beliefs, values, attitudes, and traditions all play a role in a patient’s feelings about healthcare and treatments. Understanding a patient’s culture can help providers create better health outcomes.
Next week, I’ll dive into October’s important cause-celebre, Breast Cancer Awareness. But I do hope that you’ll spare some time to learn about the foundation of good health, health literacy. It’s what allows us to make good use of this month’s awareness information! You can learn more about health literacy and ways to improve your own skills in the links below.
For a deep dive into health literacy, look over this WHO white paper. It was prepared for a global conference, but illuminates the benefits and challenges to health literacy.