What Does it Mean to be Health Literate?

What Does it Mean to be Health Literate?

Health Literacy has become a more popular term in the last few years, but many aren’t sure what it means or why it should matter to them.

The American health system is incredibly complex. At some point in our lives, we will all need to be able to find, understand, and use health information and services. 9 out of 10 adults struggle with health literacy, which is much more than just being able to read.

Usually, when someone encounters the health system, they’re already sick, confused, nervous or overwhelmed which can comprise any existing health literacy they have.  

By definition, personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Health literacy enables people to accurately dose medication, follow pre-surgical instructions, and check a nutrition label to determine if it’s safe for someone with a food allergy. For those who act as caregivers, health literacy is critical to making sound health decisions for those they care for. 

Populations with low health literacy are more likely to have poor health outcomes, such as hospital stays or frequent emergency room visits. These individuals are also more likely to struggle managing chronic diseases, skip preventative services, and have medication errors.

The benefits of health literacy are profound, and include: 

  • Increasing the use of preventative health care
  • Lower the number of unnecessary emergency room visits 
  • Lower the number of preventable stays in the hospital and readmissions
  • Reduce errors with medication dosing 
  • Enable patients to better manage chronic conditions 
  • Improve overall health outcomes

A health literate person is able to take control of their own health and well-being from a position of empowerment. They can make sound health care decisions, improve the communication between themselves and their doctors, and advocate for themselves in health-related conversations. 

Wondering how to improve your own health literacy? Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

  • Ask questions from trusted, reliable sources like your healthcare professionals.
  • Ask for a second opinion if you don’t feel supported or educated with your current providers.
  • Prepare for health care appointments by writing down questions and concerns. 
  • Repeat information provided to you during an appointment back to the healthcare professional to clarify any misunderstandings. 
  • If you’re feeling unsure, bring a trusted friend or family member to the appointment. 

To learn more about health literacy, check out this resource: https://www.nnlm.gov/guides/intro-health-literacy

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