What Is Health Literacy And Why Is It Important? [With Examples]

One of our core missions at The Shared Microscope aims to continue to encourage science/health literacy globally. To this end, we create impactful and accessible content within the life science and health industries.

In this blog post, we provide a definition of health literacy, highlight the importance of health literacy, and provide examples of how poor health literacy affects people. This blog post also provides ways in which health literacy can be improved in patients.

What Is The Definition Of Health Literacy?

Health literacy is defined as an individual’s ability to make sound decisions about their health. To be able to do this, a person must be able to understand and act upon health information. Health literacy extends beyond just knowing and understanding the facts and details about a health condition. It includes the ability to synthesize and apply the information in real life.

A patient should be able to understand the dosage of their medication, read and understand medical brochures, have a basic understanding of how the healthcare system works to be able to get the right help, process the information they are given to make decisions about health (like whether or not to get preventive surgery), and more.

An individual who is unable to understand health information and make decisions about their health generally has limited health literacy. The term limited health literacy is often used synonymously with poor/low health literacy or inadequate health literacy.

What Affects Health Literacy?

The study of health literacy can be complicated. This is because a person may understand their health condition and know the right decisions to make to ensure good health, but for various reasons may not follow the decision and get that help. This may be due to other barriers such as mistrust with the medical system, their religious beliefs, or the patient’s culture. Due to cultural reasons, for example, I initially struggled to seek help from a doctor during my breast cancer scare.

In addition to mistrust with medical systems, religious beliefs, and cultural beliefs, health literacy may be considered “poor” or “low” because of language barriers, a lower level of education, problems with accessing health information, low socioeconomic status, or because of someone’s age.

The Importance Of Health Literacy

Good health literacy is associated with better health outcomes in patients. Good health literacy also reduces the cost of care in patients. In some cases, poor health literacy affects only the patient in question – for example, they may not get the medical help that they require.

However, poor health literacy can also affect entire populations as has been suggested by the coronavirus pandemic. Many people globally did not fully understand the importance of preventive measures such as social distancing, wearing a mask, and more recently, getting a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection.

According to a 2006 report by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of adults in the United States have a high level of health literacy. The health literacy data suggests that 53% of adults have intermediate health literacy. The remaining 22% and 14% of adults in the United States have basic and poor levels of health literacy, respectively. In other words, almost 9 out of 10 adults in the United States lack the knowledge to fully manage their health and prevent diseases. These numbers are gargantuan.

According to a 2006 report by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of adults in the United States have high levels of health literacy.

Limited health literacy also leads to high expenditure in healthcare, straining families financially. According to an article published in Forbes, low health literacy costs the United States approximately $238 billion annually. Improving health literacy among people globally will not only improve their health outcomes and financial wellness but also reduce the costs of healthcare.

Low health literacy costs the United States approximately $238 billion annually. Improving health literacy will not only reduce these unnecessary costs but will also improve health outcomes for all.

Poor health literacy affects millions of people in the United States and globally. Often, poor health literacy is associated with increased hospitalization and decreased participation in preventive measures such as vaccination and health screening services. As we have seen over the past year, poor health literacy is commonly associated with vaccine hesitancy.

People with poor health literacy also struggle to access the appropriate health services for their health problems. Sometimes, patients are also taken back to the hospital because they don’t fully understand their medical dosage – often overdosing or presenting with worse symptoms because they took lower doses of their medication.

Poor/Low Health Literacy Examples

Poor literacy can look different in different situations. For example, a patient may not understand how to use their asthma pump and spray their inhaler directly on their neck instead of on their throat.

I frequently talk about poor literacy that I have come across through my work. I’ve had clients go into the GP’s clinic confused about why their blood sugar levels are so high. “I haven’t had any sugar today. I had a coffee without sugar, too. I don’t understand this at all,” says the patient struggling to control his blood sugar levels. The doctor then took a list of the foods that the patient had eaten all day – nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

On further questioning, the patient responded “I went to the pub with my friends and had some cider and beer – I made sure it wasn’t the sweet kind to make sure it doesn’t affect my sugar.” The doctor had to explain to the patient that “sugar” for a diabetic does not refer only to added sugars and desserts, but also refers to all carbohydrates that are converted into glucose. His alcohol was the source of his sugar.

Some clients I’ve worked with also struggled to understand how smoking cigarettes affects the body. Others do not fully understand the importance of sunscreen lotion.

How To Improve Health Literacy [As A Patient]

Below are some ways in which patients may improve their health literacy and thereby improve their health outcomes:

  1. Ask plenty of questions at your doctor’s appointment.
  2. Repeat information back to your doctor/nurse to ensure you understand your medical symptoms and know how to manage your medication.
  3. Consider bringing another adult with you – this may help keep information straight. They could also write down notes for you so you can focus on what the doctor is saying during your appointment.
  4. Ask the doctor for detailed instructions on how to take your medication. Feel free to write this down or use a pill card.
  5. Ask for an interpreter if English is not your first language.
  6. Maintain a list of questions that you have for your doctor – you can always ask these questions over the phone or at your next appointment.
  7. Ask for brochures or labels that will help you understand your medical condition and medication better.
  8. Do not believe everything you read on the internet – perhaps look for trustworthy materials on the NHS website, the CDC website, the NIH website, the WHO website, or the Mayo Clinic website.

How To Improve Health Literacy [As A Healthcare Professional]

  1. Make use of graphs and pictures to help communicate health-related information.
  2. Use the teach-back communication method to determine the patient’s understanding. This can be used to test the patient’s understanding of their condition and also to ensure the patient is using their medical device (such as an asthma pump/inhaler) correctly.
  3. Use simple language that is accessible.
  4. Ask open-ended questions to assess the patient’s understanding.
  5. Provide patients with written instructions on how to take their medication.
  6. Help patients fill out a pill card to ensure correct medications are taken as required.
  7. Provide patients with brochures or labels that they can refer to periodically.
  8. Ask your patient if they require a translator.
  9. Build a trustworthy online platform/information center that patients can access. On this platform, provide patients with healthcare information that they frequently ask about in the clinic. This information can be provided in the form of blog posts, infographics, videos, or any other form of content.

    If you are unable to personally create this platform, consider hiring a life science and health freelance content writer to help you out.

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