The Importance of Health Literacy

October brings with it cool, crisp weather, pumpkins, falling leaves, and of course, Health Literacy Month!

For the past 20 years, Health Literacy Month has been a time for advocacy groups, hospitals, businesses, and communities to work together to spread awareness on the importance of health literacy.

What is Health Literacy?

According to the CDC, health literacy is an individual’s ability to find, understand, and use information to help them make well-informed decisions about their health and body.

Some examples of this can include:

  • Understanding what your medication is and what it’s used for
  • Having knowledge of your body and how it works
  • Knowing when to visit a doctor or an emergency room
  • Understanding why you might need surgery
  • Understanding the risks behind medical procedures

There are many things that can impact a person’s health literacy including age, education, culture, language, and more.

But it’s important to point out that low health literacy affects individuals of all backgrounds. And even those with high overall literacy can have low health literacy.

Why is Health Literacy Important?

Health literacy has a significant effect on overall health. Individuals with low health literacy often avoid going to the doctor until too late. And many suffer from ailments or injuries that could be easily treated if caught early.

And health literacy is just as important to doctors and other medical providers. If their patients don’t understand them, they don’t trust them, and they don’t get the best care. 

In the words of Former United States Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin,

“Health literacy is as important for clinicians as it is for patients. To bridge the gap between the medical information provided and its implementation, we need health professionals who are able to speak the language and understand the culture of their patients.”

When people are health literate, they can share their concerns with their doctor easily, like telling them they’re having pain or other symptoms.

This allows doctors to understand their patient’s health concerns and patients to understand their overall health too.

The Cost of Low Health Literacy

The physical, emotional, and financial costs associated with lower health literacy can be high.

Many individuals wait to seek care until their symptoms become too much for them to live with. By then, issues or injuries that may have been less expensive and less invasive to treat, might be much worse and more expensive.

According to the Office of Disease Prevention, low health literacy can cause people to go to the emergency room (ER) more often than they need to.

Constant visits to the ER can be expensive. They can also be frustrating.

While the emergency room is the best place to handle a true emergency, it isn’t the right place for everything. And long wait-times just to be told you need care elsewhere can lead some to avoid seeking treatment in the future.

How Culture Impacts Health Literacy

Our beliefs about health and healthcare are shaped by not only our personal experiences and values, but our cultural, religious, and historical experiences and values as well.

It’s critical that we recognize the importance of culture and community on health and health literacy. According to the Center for Health Care Strategies,

“If cultural norms do not match up with the dominant values of the healthcare system, an individual — even with adequate reading, writing, and numeracy skills — can have trouble accessing health services, communicating with providers, and pursuing effective self-management. Such cultural mismatches — along with low socio-economic levels and historic discrimination — have contributed to disparities in health and health care experienced by individuals in racial, ethnic, and linguistic minority groups.”

Barriers to Health Literacy

The CDC estimates 9 out of 10 people struggle to understand medical information when it isn’t put in simple language. And there is a lot of work being done to encourage doctors to speak simply to their patients to help with this.

But for some, that’s not enough.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups who don’t speak English as their first-language are at high risk of having low health literacy.

Older age, living below the poverty line, lower education levels, and living with disabilities are other significant barriers to health literacy.

How Can Health Literacy Month Help?

The Institute for Healthcare Advancement, also known as the IHA, began its efforts to help improve health literacy in 1999. Today, they use social media, fliers, newsletters, and other outreach programs to spread the word on health literacy during the month of October and encourage other medical groups to do the same!

According to the IHA, the goal is simple to,

“build a world where all individuals have access to quality health outcomes.”

To do that, they work directly with doctors, medical groups, and others committed to improving health literacy for everyone.

There are also other groups dedicated to improving health literacy. Like the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

Community centers and community clinics are also great for providing free classes, translators, and other resources to help support those with low health literacy and help those who want to learn about their health and their options.

What Can I Do to Help?

Some things you can do to help raise awareness for Health Literacy Month are:

  • Making fliers on health literacy and sharing them
  • Creating an email list to educate people
  • Share the health literacy month website
  • Work with your community for outreach opportunities
  • Use social media to spread awareness

Here you can find fliers, social media posts, videos and more already made and ready to share!

You can share these tips with others, spread the word on social media and blogs, or even use these tips yourself with a loved one to help them improve their health.

Educate and Inform this October

While Health Literacy Month technically ends with Halloween, it’s importance stays the same all year long.

Take time this month, and in the months to come, to talk to people at your school, work, or at home about health literacy and why it matters. Ask them to spread awareness and give suggestions on what they can do to let others know health literacy month is in full swing! 

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