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Health Literacy

So much about our health and wellbeing is dependent upon the massive amount of information we receive every day; from our health care providers to news media; from friends and relatives to social marketing from different organizations.  We want to be empowered with information to make informed choices, but that can be a very difficult task when the information provided  is numerous, confusing, conflicting and just plain difficult to understand.

iStock_000008003914LargeHealth literacy is the ability to understand health information enough to make informed choices.  Not to be confused with illiteracy, which affects 21-23% of Americans (National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), 2003); low health literacy affects nearly 88% of us, costing the health care system billions of dollars a year.

Even a college-educated adult can have trouble understanding medical information, especially when faced with a new diagnosis, when in pain, or distracted by worry for a loved one.  Not having the correct information can lead to medication mistakes, readmissions, and if already faced with a chronic disease such as diabetes, asthma or high blood pressure, low health literacy can increase the risk of complications.

So what can be done? The answer lies with everyone.  Health care professionals and organizations have a responsibility to communicate in ways that people can understand.  This means simpler, easy to read documents and websites that do not contradict each other, clear signage, and slowing down their rate of speech.  For patients, they should come to their health appointments prepared to ask 3 questions: 

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is this important to my health?

(National Patient Safety Foundation’s Ask Me 3)

To be the healthiest we can be, we need information.  And we need that information communicated to us in a way that we can understand it and act on it. Low health literacy is an epidemic that affects every one of us.  The more we know, the healthier we are.

Recommended links:  www.wisconsinliteracy.org; http://www.npsf.org/


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