Health literacy 101 + 5 ways you can help yourself

Senior man discusses care options with doctor

Think back to your most recent doctor’s appointment. Were you confused about anything when you left the office? You’re not alone. Nearly 9 out of 10 Americans have limited health literacy.

“When we don’t understand, we can’t follow the plan of care that’s meant to be helpful for our health,” says Dr. Sharon Moore-Caldwell, a medical director for BlueCare Tennessee. “That can lead to noncompliance with the plan of care, more visits to the ER, and more hospital stays.”

Here’s what you need to know about health literacy and how it affects you.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is a person’s ability to find, understand and use information when making decisions about their health care.

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: Health literacy describes your ability to get information about your health and process it in the most effective way. Not everyone has this ability. Even if you have what we call “reading literacy,” it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have “health literacy.”

Health literacy can be challenging if you’re diagnosed with an illness or condition that requires complex management because there’s a lot of complicated information that you have to take in and digest.

Health literacy can also be affected by other factors, such as your:

  • life experiences
  • age
  • primary language
  • socioeconomic status

Why health literacy matters

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: Our health literacy level affects how well we are able to take care of ourselves. For example, if we have limited health literacy, we might not participate in making decisions about our own care. And we might not comply with the plan of care or treatment that our doctors help create. That puts our health at further risk.

For example, say that your doctor prescribes a certain medication for you. If you understand why the medication is so important and how to take it correctly, you’re less likely to make a mistake when you take it (or forego taking it altogether).

Low health literacy also affects our entire healthcare system. And it’s a costly problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), improving health literacy could reduce the number of hospital visits in a typical year by 1 million, and it could save as much as $25 billion every year, too.

What your doctor is doing to help you

Many healthcare professionals are working to improve their communication with their patients in an effort to boost health literacy. They’re creating more opportunities for patients to ask questions, too.

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: Your healthcare provider may practice a strategy called the Teach Back Method. This involves presenting information to patients in a clear, succinct way. Then, asking the patient to repeat back what they just heard.

If I’m your doctor and I explain something to you, I want to make sure you understand it. So, I’ll ask you to tell me what I just said. Then I’ll know that what you heard is what I intended for you to hear.

Healthcare professionals are also rethinking the language they use when they talk to patients. Many physicians tend to use medical jargon out of a desire to be precise. But often, that language can be difficult to understand by many patients. In recent years, there’s been a movement toward using “plain language” when communicating with patients and their families. That includes revising educational handouts to be easier to understand—and thus more useful to patients.

Here in Tennessee, BlueCare works to help its members navigate the healthcare system. This includes using health navigators, text messaging, and language line to help serve members. There are also member panels that help give insight to BlueCare on what is important to members for supporting their health needs.

5 ways you can help yourself

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: Here are a few strategies you can try to make sure you get and understand the information you need to be as healthy as possible.

  1. Speak up if you don’t understand something that your doctor or nurse is telling you. Whether you’re sitting in an exam room or a hospital room, don’t be afraid to speak up when you don’t understand something. It is okay to for you to ask questions and ask them repeat information, too.
  2. Volunteer to repeat information back to your provider. Say, ‘let me make sure I understand. Let me repeat this back to you.’
  3. Write down instructions. It can be helpful to take a notepad along and make notes during your visit.
  4. Bring someone with you to medical appointments. Being sick can be incredibly stressful, which can affect your ability to take in and process information. Having a trusted friend or family member with you can be very helpful. They can take notes, too.
  5. Call your doctor’s office to clarify. If you get home and reread your discharge instructions or medication instructions, call your provider back and ask for an explanation.

Consider health literacy when choosing a PCP

If you establish a good relationship with a primary care provider, it might make you feel more comfortable about speaking up when you don’t understand something or asking for more information. In fact, you might prioritize that comfort level when searching for a new PCP.

Dr. Moore-Caldwell: One of the best ways you can advocate for yourself is by being an active member of your own healthcare team. So, when you’re searching for a primary care provider, remember that you are looking for a teammate. You will be working together to make your health better. Find a provider—it might be an internist, a family medicine physician, a family nurse practitioner, a geriatrician, or a physician assistant—with whom you feel comfortable and can establish a trusting relationship.  Then you won’t hesitate to ask questions or request more details.

More from Dr. Moore-Caldwell on WellTuned.

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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