Health literacy encompasses more than just reading. It’s an essential skill that saves lives and money.
According to the World Health Organization (2021), health literacy is essential for empowerment. Unfortunately, many persons are unable to make informed health decisions due to limited health literacy.
In fact, poor health literacy can result in a variety of issues throughout your lifespan. Adults – for example – who have low health literacy are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors or seek out information about what they should do to avoid preventable illnesses.
As such, it is important for individuals to assess their own abilities and deficiencies in order to recognize the impact they can have on their own health and personal wellness.
This article will focus on what it means to be health literate and the importance of securing the tools necessary to become empowered – both for yourself and your family.
Unfortunately, research shows that adults who are living in poverty generally have lower health literacy (Healthy People, 2021).
What is health literacy?
According to the World Health Organization (2021), health literacy is defined as, “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”
Limited health literacy refers to an individual’s limited ability to access, understand, and use health information in everyday life situations.
Notedly, although low overall literacy may impact health literacy, the relationship is much more complex.
In fact, someone can have a high general literacy and their health literacy may still be low (Healthy People, 2021).
"Understanding statistics about the risks and benefits of a treatment is called health literacy." - Jerome Groopman
The benefits / importance of increasing your health literacy
The importance of health literacy can be seen by the significant increases in illness and mortality rates among those with limited health literacy.
More specifically, the benefits to increasing health literacy include:
- Improve your health condition
- Make healthier choices
- Increase awareness of available health resources
- Efficiently communicate with medical staff
(1) Health literacy improves your health condition
The most obvious motivation for improving your health literacy is to be well informed so that you could take adequate steps to improve your health condition.
Actually, if you have a health condition and understand how to manage it, you will likely feel more in control.
As such, increasing your health literacy can be an empowering way to advocate of yourself.
Increasing your health literacy can also help you educate others around so that they too can improve their health.
(2) Health literacy helps you make healthier choices
Health literacy can greatly impact your ability to take preventative measures to protect your health.
Notedly, if you don’t understand the risk factors associated with your condition, or how changes in behavior can improve or worsen symptoms, you are less likely to make healthy choices.
Improved health literacy will also help you be more adequately prepared for appointments and medical procedures.
(3) Health literacy makes you aware of health resources
Often, individuals with limited health literacy are not able to navigate the complex medical system well enough to effectively seek out additional support when needed.
As such, by working on increasing your health literacy you can learn to identify the resources that are available to you.
This may include learning where and how to access services, support groups, or other useful information about your condition.
(4) Health literacy helps you communicate with medical staff
Finally, it should be noted that even though we often think about our health literacy in relation to our ability to understand written health information.
It can also refer to how we are able to interact with those around us.
This includes the ability to effectively communicate with health care providers or pharmacists as well as family members and friends for additional support.
The consequences of poor health literacy
The consequences of low health literacy are not trivial. They are associated with increased per capita health care costs, higher rates of hospitalization and re-hospitalization.
Additionally, limited health literacy causes decreased medication compliance, increased risk of injury due to adverse drug events, lower self-rated health status, less healthy behaviors (smoking cessation), reduced preventive screening for breast cancer and low utilization of high value services.
As a result, the implications of limited health literacy include poorer physical and mental condition, increased risk of death and more chronic diseases.
This means that you will find yourself spending more time in the hospital as well as incurring additional medical expenses.
In fact, according to the CDC (2021), increased health literacy can prevent one million visits to the hospital and in excess of $25 billion yearly.
"The infrastructure for linking environmental health and public health is not working as well as it should." -Samuel Wilson
Let’s discover in greater detail the consequences of poor health literacy:
- Worsening health and increased costs
- Increased feelings of vulnerability
- Decreased productivity
- Lower self-rated health status
- Reduced involvement in healthcare decisions
- Increased anger, frustration and fear
- Increased feelings of depression, isolation and powerlessness
- Decreased compliance with medication and treatment plans
- Delay in seeking medication attention
- Inability to set and achieve health goals
- Health care disparities
(1) Poor health literacy can worsen health
Health literacy is also a critical component of health care for older adults and the elderly.
This is because this demographic is more likely to suffer from chronic diseases than any other age group.
As such, there is an increased demand for them to understand how to manage these conditions to improve their quality of life.
Similarly, those with limited health literacy may be at risk for poor medication adherence.
This ultimately means that as a result of limited health literacy, higher rates of hospitalization and re-hospitalization, disease progression and ultimately poorer health outcomes occur.
(2) Poor health literacy increases vulnerability
Persons with limited health literacy may feel increasingly vulnerable. This is because they are often afraid that their condition is not going to improve.
Also, in many cases, individuals with limited health literacy do not possess the knowledge or skills to effectively manage their health conditions.
As a result, they may be more likely to return to the emergency room due to fear and anxiety instead of managing a non-emergent situation on their own.
(3) Poor health literacy decreases productivity
People who have limited health literacy are more likely to have poorer health and require more treatment, advice and hospitalization.
This results in them needing to miss more workdays and have lower overall productivity.
This ultimately means that their employers will incur higher expenses. It may also result in unemployment and underemployment.
(4) Poor health literacy lowers self-rated health status
Persons with limited health literacy are more likely to rate their health status lower than others who do not experience the same level of health literacy challenges.
(5) Poor health literacy reduces involvement in health decisions
It’s important to feel empowered during interactions with health care professionals.
This means having the opportunity to ask questions, participate in their care plan and develop a sense of shared-decision making with providers.
Unfortunately, limited health literacy often results in the lack of involvement due to increased anxiety, stress and overall dissatisfaction.
This ultimately leads to decreased patient satisfaction.
(6) Poor health literacy increases anger, frustration and fear
In some cases, people who have low health literacy may experience heightened stress levels which can lead to increased feelings of anger and frustration.
In fact, these emotions are often directed towards their family members or caregivers who they perceive are not providing enough support.
Additionally, persons with limited health literacy may also feel additionally fearful that their condition is getting worse.
And, that they will no longer be able to live independently or that the health care professionals are not competent enough to help them manage their chronic conditions.
(7) Poor health literacy increases depression, isolation and powerlessness
In many cases, people living with low health literacy may have a sense of lack of control over their condition.
For example, they may be aware that the food they eat affects their blood sugar levels but find it too difficult to make the necessary changes for better control.
Subsequently, they may feel isolated and powerless which can greatly contribute to feelings of depression or hopelessness .
"Of all the knowledge, that most worth having is knowledge about health! The first requisite of a good life is to be a healthy person." - Herbert Spencer
(8) Poor health literacy decreases compliance with treatment plans
People who have low health literacy are often less likely to take their medications as prescribed.
In many cases, this may be due to lack of understanding or knowledge on the importance and process of treatment compliance.
For example, someone has diabetes and they do not understand the importance of taking insulin shots as indicated by their doctor.
This can lead to increased blood sugar levels and overall poor health outcomes.
As a result, medical bills may increase and their overall quality of life may decrease.
In some cases, this lack of compliance with medication and treatment plans can also cause more serious health consequences including death.
(9) Poor health literacy results in delayed medical attention
Being unable to understand their condition or prognosis can lead to some patients withdrawing from the physician-patient relationship.
Subsequently, they may refuse further testing, treatment recommendations, undergo unnecessary procedures without understanding the implications and avoid preventive care.
Also, low health literacy puts you at a greater risk of being underinsured or uninsured because the lack of understanding inhibits your abilities to effectively navigate the complex health care system.
In addition, those with limited health literacy skills often have a more difficult time understanding insurance requirements, such as prior authorizations and deductibles.
This results in increased out-of-pocket costs for the patient and ultimately more claim denials as a result of non-compliance.
(10) Poor health literacy affects ability to set and achieve health goals
For those who have limited health literacy, it will be increasingly challenging to identify and prioritize personal health goals. In addition, it will be more difficult to effectively communicate with providers about the importance of being proactive with health concerns.
Read also: How to create a personal wellness plan
(11) Poor health literacy increases health disparities
Limited health literacy puts you at a greater risk of experiencing disparities in healthcare due to cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic differences.
Actually, limited health literacy has the ability to exacerbate the differences in life expectancy between those who are high versus low income; ethnic minorities vs Caucasians etc.
Furthermore, disparities and misunderstandings may lead to mistrust or resentment which negatively affect the physician-patient relationship.
The consequences of limited health literacy are severe, so it is important for you to be aware of the steps you can take to improve health literacy.
"There are all kinds of things you can do to marry literacy with health." - C Everett Koop
Simple things to do if you have limited health literacy
If you have limited health literacy it’s fundamental that you implement these everyday tips to help you understand and make more inform decisions about your health.
These strategies to increase health literacy include seeking assistance for understanding written information, asking questions if you do not understand what is being said or ensuring that you have a clear path for additional help when needed.
(1) Improve health literacy by planning ahead
Firstly, even if you do not have limited health literacy, I’d recommend planning for your consultations beforehand.
Undeniably, medical consults can be stressful, particularly when receiving lab results or unfavorable diagnosis.
As such, writing down your questions will make it much easier to remember what to ask.
This is even more necessary if you have language barriers. Planning ahead may also help you find facilities that offer services in your indigenous language.
(2) Improve health literacy by getting help
Get help from family or friends you trust, particularly if they have a greater health literacy. In fact, when people lack health literacy skills they may miss important pieces of information.
Having someone else read the materials or accompany you to doctor visits will make it more likely for you to understand and gain much more from the consultation.
Additionally, learning from persons who have the same medical condition (especially chronic and psychological illnesses) as you can be very beneficial.
(3) Improve health literacy by not being afraid to ask
If your healthcare provider conveys new information that you weren’t aware of or leaves you confused, it’s okay to ask for clarification.
Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something. Although this may seem basic it’s very important.
In fact, many patients may feel embarrassed. Some persons may even feel as if they are wasting their doctor’s time and instead choose to leave confused or misinformed.
The more you know, the better equipped you are to follow the doctor’s advice and ask pertinent questions.
(4) Improve health literacy by keep asking questions until satisfied
If you ask for more information and are still unhappy with the information you received, ask for another consultation.
Additionally, you can ask your provider to explain it in a different way or for a referral to someone else who could provide you with more accurate and complete information.
Don’t ignore your confusion or think that it’s too much work. If you issue is not addressed, speak up.
It may be beneficial to have them repeat the information or rephrase it until you feel that you understand what they are saying.
They can have serious health and financial consequences. If necessary, speak up and demand more.
Essentially, keep asking questions and seeking answers until you are satisfied. Health literacy is fundamental to good medical care.
(5) Increase health literacy by understanding power dynamics
Power dynamics often affect interpersonal relationships. It’s important that you are aware of the power dynamics in the doctor-patient relationship and are able to use it to your advantage.
Remember that you, the patient, should be the ‘center’ of the experience.
As such, the healthcare provider should be willing to give more information in return for a patient asking more questions.
Notably, your physician may not be aware of your concerns or questions unless you voice them.
While it is important to respect boundaries and understand when it is best for you to speak up, being informed can help you have a greater impact on your own health and how you are treated.
"True wealth is having your health, and knowledge of self." - Immortal technique
(6) Improved health literacy takes time
Remember that health literacy is a lifelong journey, and we all need help sometimes. There’s never a time that you can say you know enough.
There’s always something new to learn. And, there’s always a little bit more you can do to take charge of your health.
Additionally, give yourself time to read and digest the information given. This can be taken one section at a time, or taken in small snippets over several sessions.
Moreover, prioritize the information you are reading based on what is most important to you. Try re-reading the material several times.
It may take you longer to read it initially, but once you understand the basic concepts, these written materials will be easier to understand.
(7) Improve health literacy by asking before agreeing
Ask about the benefits, risks and costs of diagnostic tests or procedures before agreeing to have one.
Some tests that are very costly may not even necessary. And, the increased financial burden may be avoidable stress.
(8) Improve health literacy by not pretending to be an expert
Use language that is familiar to you when discussing your health concerns with health care providers.
For example, you may use words such as “tummy ache” or “back pain” instead of feeling pressured to use medical terms.
Keep it simple and focus on your symptoms rather than the names of different diseases.
Use visual aids to help enhance your understanding and memory of written information if possible.
In fact, if you feel that these visual aids may help your health care provider then speak up and let them know!
(9) Increase health literacy by record keeping
Keep accurate records of your medical history including important readings such as blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Report health changes to your doctor promptly. If you have made prior arrangements with a family member or friend, inform them of changes in your condition so they will be aware if you are unable to or forget to communicate yourself.
Plus, remember to keep a list of your medications handy.
(10) Improve health literacy by following through
Follow through on treatment plans that are mutually agreed upon by patient and professional.
Consult your doctor if you experience any side effects or symptoms that concern you before stopping the medication.
They’ll likely give you the best advice to decrease these side effects or substitute this for another medication.
(11) Increase health literacy by demanding more
Voice concerns and ask questions if you do not like the way a professional conducts themselves during an appointment.
Note instances of unacceptable behavior and write them down as soon as possible afterwards.
Speak to someone in authority about your complaints, such as the doctor’s supervisor or manager.
Additionally, ask questions or express concerns if you do not understand or agree with something your doctor says.
Seek out a second opinion from another professional if necessary. If you have been given instructions for prescription that you don’t understand, ask your pharmacist to explain them.
In fact, many pharmacists are required to provide information about medications prescribed and dispensed.
If you still feel unsure about a medication’s side effects or interactions with other drugs or substances, let them know.
"Health care is vital to all of us some of the time, but public health is vital to all of us all of the time." - C. Everett Koop
(12) Increase health literacy by avoiding assumptions
If you are a health care professional yourself, avoid making assumptions about patients’ knowledge or specific needs.
Communicate clearly with patients throughout the process of diagnosis and treatment.
Ask their permission to take a complete medical history before proceeding. Listen carefully.
Final Words on overcoming limited health literacy
As you can see, health literacy is intricately related to the overall health of an individual.
If you are not able to understand your health conditions, then it will be more difficult for you to improve your quality and quantity of life.
It’s important to note that many persons who are struggling with low health literacy may also experience additional challenges in their lives.
These include issues with poverty, unemployment or work instability, lack of adequate transportation and neighborhood disorganization which all can result in increased stress levels.
As a result, it’s possible to see that those with low health literacy may suffer from a diminished sense of self-esteem and overall feeling less satisfied with life.
Let’s take active steps to escape this unhealthy cycle.
"To preserve health is a moral and religious duty, for health is the basis of all social virtues. We can no longer be useful when we are not well." - Samuel Johnson
Can you remember a circumstance where limited health literacy has affected your health outcome? Let me know in the comments below.
Patient’s mistrust of health care system
Mistrust in the health care system is a barrier to healthcare access and utilization.
In fact, mistrust impacts a patient’s decision making and may either lead to unwarranted testing or treatments, or avoiding necessary care altogether.
Public mistrust may be due to an experience related incident, such as misdiagnosis or unsuccessful treatment for a serious illness.
However, by increasing patient’s trust in the system, healthcare access and quality will drastically improve. Read more
How to evaluate the accuracy of health information?
Health information comes from different sources, which are not always accurate.
As such, it is important to be critical when it comes to health information because it can have a direct impact on your health and wellbeing.
By learning how to evaluate the accuracy of information, patients will be able to make better decisions for their health care needs. Read more
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021) Health Literacy
Healthy People (2021) Health literacy
The World Health Organization (2021) Improving health literacy.
The World Health Organization (2013) The solid facts.