What is Health Literacy and Why is it Important

Health literacy

Do you ever feel confused or overwhelmed when trying to make health-related decisions for you or your family? Have you ever read the instructions on a prescription bottle and remained unsure about their meaning? Do you sometimes feel like your doctor is speaking an entirely different language? If so, you’re not alone.

Being able to access and comprehend information about your health is what’s known as health literacy, and according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of adults have proficient health literacy. What this means is that nearly nine out of ten adults may lack the necessary skills to adequately manage their health and prevent disease.

This gap in the public’s knowledge creates a number of roadblocks for people trying to make crucial decisions about their lifestyle, diet and medical care. For instance, people might not understand the treatment choices recommended by their doctor, but they might also be confused about how to seek clarification. In turn, this rate of poor health literacy is a concern for individuals and for governments, with the cost of low health literacy estimated to be between $106 billion and $236 billion a year. Improving health literacy should be a priority, but the first step is understanding why proficiency is so low.

What is Health Literacy?

Understanding basic health information

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” In other words, health literacy refers to how readily a person can make sense of health information and services and apply that knowledge to their own situation.

People who need health-related information and services also require health literacy to find these services in the first place, to communicate their needs and preferences, and to process the information recommended by health professionals. Basically, health literacy is someone’s capacity to make informed choices in regards to their own health.

Why Do We Have Poor Health Literacy?

The degree to which someone is proficient in health literacy depends on a number of factors, including how well health issues are communicated, as well as the depth of knowledge the public has about specific topics. For example, people with poor health literacy may not understand the nature and causes of a certain disease, and therefore may not realize the relationship between lifestyle factors—like diet—and various health concerns. Similarly, proficient health literacy requires a certain level of math skills for making accurate calculations to properly measure medications.

Even if we all had access to health brochures, emails, public service announcements and others forms of media, it is nearly useless if it’s not easily understood. Something as simple as researching whether or not to have your morning cup of coffee can open a can of worms, as you skim article after article telling you coffee is good for you and that it is also harmful. Now, consider this same level of confusion in relation to such serious issues as heart disease, then think about the amount of literature out there telling you different things about how to properly decrease your risk (what to eat, how much to eat, how much to diet, etc).

One of the biggest ways poor health literacy can prove harmful is when it comes to diet. Many people lack a basic understanding of the roles of carbohydrates, fats and proteins within their diet, and there is a lot of confusion about nutrient sources. Fried foods and fatty fish both contain fats, but fish are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, while fried foods have been linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, it is understandable how someone with poor health literacy struggles to understand nutritional labels in their attempt to adhere to a doctor-prescribed dietary change.

What Can We Do to Improve Health Literacy?

What we can do to improve health literacy

While it is the responsibility of public health professionals and other medical experts to deliver health information in an easily accessible way, people need to feel empowered—instead of embarrassed—to ask for clarification. Not clear on something your doctor said? Ask! Have a question about your health or diet? Speak up! If you don’t understand the terms your doctor is using, ask them to rephrase their instructions.

We can all be better advocates for our health by asking the medical care experts in our lives to improve the information we have access to. It’s important that all people feel in control of their health, and when it comes to healthy eating, understanding the basis of a healthy diet is the first step to adopting a healthy way of eating.

Want to learn more about health literacy? Start by gathering a better understanding of the food pyramid.

Photo Credits: Rawpixel / Shutterstock Inc., Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock Inc., Syda Productions / Shutterstock Inc.