It’s no secret that the medical world is complex. There’s a reason population health and medical practitioners require extensive training and use specialized tools – such as health risk assessments (HRAs) – to serve their populations. But that also means that non-medically trained individuals may find information about their own health difficult to understand or – at the very least – a bit complicated.
To understand health and wellness and their various processes, procedures, and implications, is to have some degree of “health literacy.” Much in the same way the word “literate” means to have the ability to read and write, “health literacy” means that an individual has the ability to process and understand basic information as it pertains to their health. And while all that sounds simple enough, it’s much more nuanced than just being able to hear what a healthcare professional is telling you. In fact, a staggering one-third of the United States population – over 77 million people – have difficulty with “common health care tasks,” such as following prescription instructions or adhering to the standardized childhood immunization schedule.
What Is Health Literacy?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.” When breaking down that definition, we’re provided with three core pillars: the abilities to obtain, process, and understand.
- Obtain – The first pillar of health literacy is the capacity to obtain basic health information. If an individual is unable to access the information that they need, they have no way of even approaching the next two pillars. Information regarding their individual health and general health concepts should be accessible without overly arduous restriction.
- Process – At first glance, “process” and “understand” may seem like two very similar concepts. While they’re certainly related, they play very different roles in health literacy. Once an individual has obtained the necessary health information, their ability to process the information comes into play. This doesn’t simply mean processing the concepts at face value; it also means being able to act on them. If a physician prescribes a medication to be taken four times per day, then it’s crucial that the patient has the ability to process that information as requiring the medication be taken every six hours, not just whenever they feel like it as long as it’s equal to four times during the day. Similarly, when a health and wellness expert counsels someone to eat three servings of whole grains a day, the person must be able to reason out both the size of a serving and what a whole grain is.
- Understand – The final component of health literacy is that the recipient of the information is able to “understand” it. This doesn’t only mean that the individual needs to be able to comprehend the information – it also means that the individual delivering the information needs to make sure they’re doing it in a way that is on par with the recipient’s abilities. For example, a child or a cognitively impaired elderly person may have difficulty understanding concepts or terms that an otherwise healthy adult can easily grasp. Similarly, an individual who speaks English as a second-language may require additional assistance when speaking to their physician, since information could very easily – and literally – get lost in translation.
Why Is Health Literacy Important?
It’s clear that health literacy is important. Health and wellness providers must ensure that their population comprehends where their health stands and the steps they must take to maintain or improve it. That said, health literacy isn’t only important as a means of allowing providers and patients to communicate. Health literacy also has a fairly direct correlation to quality of life and healthcare costs.
- Communication – If a provider is unable to communicate effectively and efficiently with their patient the health care process will breakdown. Providers need to be able to communicate with their patients to gather information and relay results. If a physician has concerns that their patient is not understanding, or is misinterpreting, their discussions then they should work with additional resources or personnel to clarify messaging.
- Quality of Life – According to the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality’s report, Health Literacy Interventions and Outcomes: an Update of the Literacy and Health Outcomes Systematic Review of the Literature, “low health literacy is linked to higher risk of death and more emergency room visits and hospitalizations.” When an individual doesn’t necessarily understand their health status, instructions for their health care, or ramifications of certain decisions, they could be harming themselves or the individuals they care for. From there, their risk of death or urgent care requirements rises, as they may find themselves ignoring symptoms or taking incorrect preventative or maintenance measures.
- Healthcare Costs – As one’s understanding of their health status or requirements decreases, healthcare costs could potentially increase. Individuals with lower health literacy are more likely to skip preventative care measures, such as annual well visits, mammograms, and flu shots. Additionally, they are more likely to have chronic conditions – such as diabetes or asthma – and are less likely to be able to manage them effectively. These issues, among others, combine to create an environment that leads to increased preventable hospital visits/admissions and more frequent use of emergency services.
Increasing health literacy is a task that falls to the health care and public health professionals. These professionals should work together to ensure that information and materials are presented to patient populations in a clear, concise manner that can be understood by all of their intended audience.
The Wellsource HRA allows clinicians, population health managers, and health plans improve the health and well-being of their members and is carefully crafted to ensure that all questions and results are accessible to population members with a low health literacy.