Oct 21, 2023

Defining and Understanding Health Literacy

Crisp Living.

Better communication between healthcare providers and patient families means better care. Communication is an important part of healthcare! Having a good understanding of what your doctor tells you will increase your chances of following instructions. However, several factors can affect how well people understand health information – referred to as their “health literacy.”

There are two kinds of health literacy:

Personal health literacy measures how well a person can find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others. Organizational health literacy describes an organization’s commitment to equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

In the past, “health literacy” referred to someone’s ability to find and understand health information. Now, the emphasis is on being able to use that information.

Why is health literacy so important?

The results of various studies have shown that people with higher health literacy are less likely to make medication or treatment mistakes, and are also more likely to know how to successfully navigate the healthcare system, comply with treatment, and avoid hospitalization.

How do I know if I have good health literacy?

It’s not a question of having “good” or “bad” health literacy. It can go up or down depending on the situation. At any given time, any number of factors can affect how well you are able to understand and use the medical communications you receive.

How do you counteract these problems?

One way is by encouraging our providers to use a “teach-back approach”—after a doctor or nurse explains a medical situation or at-home care, they ask the family member to repeat what they just heard. This way, gaps in understanding are identified at the moment and can be addressed. We also encourage people to ask as many questions as needed.

What can I do if I don’t understand the medical information given to me?

Ask questions about anything you want to know or don’t understand. Write out your questions ahead of your appointment; it’s likely you may not remember them during a stressful conversation. Understand that your medical provider wants to communicate clearly and needs your participation—your questions and input—to make that happen.

How can I become more health literate in general?

Be aware that stressors may impact your ability to understand information, but this is normal! Know that everyone reacts differently. Be kind to yourself if you don’t grasp information or a new skill right away. Don’t let embarrassment stop you from learning to advocate for yourself or your loved one.

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