Understanding and advocating for your personal health care is a must for maintaining your well-being while navigating through an intricate health care system. Learn the basics of how to boost your own health literacy.

As consumers of a complex health care system, we as patients rarely consider a vital part of what ensures our well-being: health literacy.

The term “health literacy” describes the extent to which people have the ability to understand, find, and use health-related information and services to make informed decisions for their own health or for the health of others.

Where do we most commonly get our health care information?

We gain our health-related knowledge from printed sources like the books, brochures, magazines, and newspapers, and non-printed sources like our health care providers, family, friends, television, and radio all influence how much we understand about our health as well.

Why is health literacy so important?

The health literacy of society is carefully studied because people with higher levels of knowledge, skills, and confidence when it comes to their health are shown to lead healthier lives.

Those who understand and use their personal health information most effectively are more  satisfied with their medical experiences, enjoy a higher quality of life and promote their well-being by taking self-care and preventive measures like physical exercise, avoiding tobacco, and getting vaccinations.

In short, health literacy helps individuals best prevent illness and manage medical conditions like obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes when they arise, making improving health literacy an essential public health goal.

How prevalent is poor health literacy in the United States?

Nearly 90% of adults face difficulty understanding and using health-related information for themselves or others when it is conveyed with medical terminology that is too complex, resulting in higher than necessary illness and death.

It is estimated that improving health literacy could save over $25 billion and 1 million hospital visits per year.

What can make health literacy a challenge?

Reading, writing, and number skills certainly play a role in a person’s level of literacy, but when it comes to literacy about health, many other factors come into play that can make or break a patient’s ability to best understand and self-advocate for their own care.

Even people who read well and are comfortable using numbers can face health literacy issues when

  • They are not familiar with medical terms or how their bodies work.
  • They have to interpret statistics and evaluate risks and benefits that affect their health and safety.
  • They are diagnosed with a serious illness and are scared and confused.
  • They have health conditions that require complicated self-care.
  • They are voting on an issue affecting the community’s health and relying on unfamiliar technical information.

Health information that contains terminology or steps that are confusing, unfamiliar, complex, and technical makes it more difficult for patients to grasp the necessary information they need to promote their own health care.

Patients are best served when they communicate effectively with their health care providers, are involved in making health-related decisions, and interpret information from their online medical records easily.

Who is most at risk for poor health literacy?

Certain patients are more susceptible to the pitfalls of poor health literacy, and use less of their own personal health information effectively.

Adults over the age of 65 are more prone to suffering poor health literacy, as are the underserved population, particularly those whose primary language is not English, those living at or below the poverty line, and those who earn less than a high school diploma.

How to boost your health literacy and self-advocate for your healthcare needs

There are many ways to be engaged and play an active role in your health care. The key is to be forthcoming and clear with your health care team about your medical needs in order to gain a full understanding of your diagnosis and treatment to make the best joint decision for your care.

Follow these 7 tips on how boost health literacy at your provider’s office.

  1. Jot down a list of questions you have before your appointment to make sure you are able to gain a solid understanding and make the most of your time with your provider.
  2. If possible, bring a loved one with you for support and to act as an extra pair of eyes and ears to further understand your medical condition.
  3. Take good notes so that you can review the information discussed later. Oftentimes we get anxious when conversing with our providers, and research shows that 40% to 80% of the medical information we get is forgotten immediately, and nearly half of the information we remember later is incorrect.
  4. If there is something you do not understand, ask for clarification until you do.
  5. Ask about the follow-up plan if symptoms do not resolve.
  6. Before you leave, enquire about the best method to communicate with your provider in case any questions or concerns come up.
  7. Familiarize yourself with your medical records to monitor your diagnoses, test results, treatment plans, and medications.