Health literacy is the ability to make good health decisions every day.
While traditional literacy skills are a part of health literacy, health literacy focuses on skills required to function in the health care environment, including:
- Reading, writing, and filling out forms
- Listening and verbal communication skills
- Numeracy, which involves computing, interpreting and evaluating risk
- Self-efficacy, or one’s belief in their ability to perform a task
- Navigation of health care systems and facilities
It’s no secret that low health literacy seriously limits a person’s ability to manage their health and health care. An estimated 93 million American adults are considered ‘low health literacy.’ That is, they are thought to lack the skills needed to understand and use health information. What’s this mean in real-life terms? It means that about 1 in 5 American adults may have trouble managing their health condition, determining what vaccine a child needs at what age, and calculating medication dosage and timing.
Since the early days of health literacy work, we have learned quite a few things about the nature of health literacy:
- First, we know that everyone can have trouble understanding health information at different times. Context is everything.
- Second, we know that you can’t look at someone and tell whether or not they have low or limited health literacy.
- And third, we know that health information is always changing and can be very difficult to understand. It uses medical, dental, legal, and pharmaceutical terms as well as many other kinds of words that most people don’t use in their daily lives.
What’s also true is that some of us have more challenges than others, such as those who use English as a second language or have low reading skills.
The consequences of low health literacy, for all of us, are very real. They include:
- Poor health outcomes
- Decreased use of preventive health screenings
- Increased use of hospitals and emergency departments
- Medicine errors
- Misunderstandings at discharge from health centers
- Increased hospital readmissions
The health literacy projects supported by the Health Forward Foundation were completed earlier this year. These projects at five Kansas City-area institutions provided essential educational services for patients and health care providers, reaching more than 26,664 patients and almost 900 providers.
The health literacy initiative’s goal was to adopt and assess promising health literacy practices in order to improve the health knowledge and behaviors of safety net patients. Grant funds supported the implementation of effective health literacy practices into the routine operations of participating providers and organizations.
Through the use of health literacy techniques such as plain language and Teach-Back, providers and staff were able to 1) create safe environments that empowered patients and caregivers to ask questions and 2) engage staff in effective teaching and communication.
Grantees represented a variety of health care settings, including primary care, specialty care, pharmacy, imaging, laboratory, and Women, Infants, and Children’s (WIC) areas.
The outcomes were encouraging! Patients increased their comfort in filling out forms, following doctors’ instructions, taking medications as directed, asking for more clarification when the doctor uses medical jargon, and asking questions when the doctor’s explanations are unclear.
Educational videos produced by grantees were seen by thousands of patients, who subsequently reported an increased knowledge about what to bring to their appointment and that they were more comfortable asking questions about their medicine.
Projects that addressed medication assessment also achieved increases in the number of patient visits in which the patient brought their medications to their appointment for review.
Grantees shared that pilot projects began or extended important conversations on health literacy in their institutions and helped them connect and learn from teams conducting innovative work in neighboring institutions. We couldn’t be more proud of this successful program!
This blog post is part of A Healthy 10.