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LINCOLN -- For more than 20 years, October has been recognized as Health Literacy Month, a time of international observance when hospitals, health centers, literacy programs, libraries, social service agencies, businesses, professional associations, government agencies, consumer alliances, and other groups can work collaboratively to integrate and expand the mission of health literacy.
Health information can be confusing even for those with advanced literacy skills. It's easy for those working in health care to forget that the terms and language that are used may be something that patients can't always easily understand. Many healthcare workers believe that they had shared information with a patient, family member or caregiver, and assumed that they had understood the instructions, only to later discover confusion or misunderstanding.
Health literacy is defined as the capacity to obtain, process, and understand the basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health literacy is not simply the ability to read. It requires a combination of reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health-related situations.
Low health literacy is more prevalent among:
Nationally, low health literacy exists for a number of reasons. Some people may struggle to understand because they have Limited English Proficiency (LEP); others may have limited education and poorer communication skills. If health care providers use medical language that their patients are not familiar with and do not understand, then people who lack the language skills or knowledge about the healthcare system are at a greater risk of misunderstanding their diagnosis or instructions.
Personal health literacy is achieved when individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information as well as services to make health-related decisions for both themselves and others. Health literacy helps to prevent health problems, protect one's personal health, and better manage health problems should they occur.
As limited health literacy is common and may be difficult to recognize, healthcare practitioners in every healthcare setting are advised to assume that all patients and caregivers have difficulty comprehending health information and to communicate in ways that anyone can understand, such as by simplifying complex statements and by using layperson's terms instead of medical jargon.
Low health literacy increases economic costs to the entire health care system nationally and to individuals experiencing the consequences of low health literacy, such as not understanding their diagnoses or treatment plans. Psychological suffering also increases as a result of poorer physical health.
Other outcomes of low health literacy include the following:
Health literacy is important for obtaining appropriate medical and behavioral health care everywhere. People with low health literacy may not receive adequate level of care because of the difficulty in finding providers or not being able to share their medical history. They may also struggle to fill out forms and understand directions for taking medications. Importantly, individuals with low health literacy may not know how to seek preventive health care or recognize the link between risky behaviors and health consequences.
If you would like to learn more about navigating your health records with existing resources and tools, visit https://www.healthit.gov/how-do-i/individuals.