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What Is Health Literacy and Why Should You Care?

By Wellsource, Inc.

Anyone who has navigated the world of population health knows that communicating about health concerns is complex. With new protocols, regulations, and technological advances occurring daily, population health practitioners must stay current and use specialized tools—such as health risk assessments (HRAs)—to stay up-to-date with their population’s needs.

The problem is the health and wellness industry is filled with unpronounceable medical terminology that can make it hard for non-medically trained people to understand.

The language healthcare professionals use can sound like a foreign language, but understanding a diagnosis or health concern is vital to improving health—and helps when we give a special focus to health literacy.

What is Health Literacy?

Health literacy refers to the skills a person needs to participate in the healthcare system and make informed healthcare decisions. Studies show that a stunning 9 out of 10 adults struggle with health literacy. In addition, just because someone has high health literacy in one area of wellness, for instance, women’s health, doesn't mean they’ll have high literacy in other areas of medicine, such as cardiology. Even highly educated individuals may have low health literacy, depending on the circumstances. Illness, injury, or stress can make accessing and understanding health information difficult.

The Healthy People 2030 Initiative identifies three areas that build personal health literacy: finding, understanding and using information.

Core Pillars of Health Literacy

1. Find Basic Health Information 

How easy or difficult is it for someone to find the basic health information they need? If it’s too hard to find, they’ll likely give up searching. This is often the first step in not following health guidance, which can lead to negative health outcomes. So, it should be easy for a patient to find information about personal health and general health concepts. This might be through patient information materials provided by healthcare staff, personalized health recommendations within their HRA, or in their healthcare provider’s resource library. 

2. Understand Health Information

For an individual to fully comprehend medical information, it must be delivered in a way that matches the recipient’s abilities. When developing communication vehicles for children, older adults, or communities where English is a second language, consider what different tactics you might take to ensure comprehension.

According to a Gallup analysis (opens as a PDF) of data from the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of American adults have a 5th-grade reading level, or below. That's why guidance from the American Medical Association (AMA) recommends health materials be written at a maximum of a 6th-grade level. 

3. Use Health Information Appropriately

It’s not enough that a patient understands healthcare communications. They have to be able to put that knowledge into action—whether at home, in the pharmacy aisle, or elsewhere.

For example, a patient may understand they have an ear infection and need a prescription. But it doesn’t end there; they must also understand how to use the medication—how it's administered, how often, and at what dose.

Why is Health Literacy Important?

We access some level of health literacy skills every day. From checking nutrition labels for food allergens, calculating the correct dose of a medicine, or finding a vaccine clinic—health literacy affects everyone. Whether for ourselves or a family member, at some point we all need to find, understand, and use health information and services. Low health literacy can have significant and disastrous consequences for the patient and the public’s health.

In looking at the importance of health literacy, there’s a direct correlation between communication, quality of life, and healthcare costs.

1. Communication

Today’s healthcare models promote collaboration between providers and patients while encouraging patients to be active participants in their healthcare. This can overwhelm anyone. People with low health literacy may be confused and embarrassed by their lack of understanding, causing them to ask fewer questions or disengage completely. The resulting negative implications for the quality of care provided, along with the quality of outcomes, can be life-threatening.

If lines of communication between provider and patient aren’t effective, the collaborative relationship breaks down. Providers need to understand each patient's learning abilities to communicate effectively with them. If a provider’s concerned their patient doesn’t understand or is at risk for misinterpretation, it's time to employ additional resources or personnel to clarify messaging.

2. Quality of Life

Studies confirm that limited health literacy is linked to poorer overall health and quality of life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, patients with low health literacy:

  • Are more likely to visit an emergency room 
  • Have more hospital stays
  • Are less likely to follow treatment plans 
  • Have higher mortality rates 

When an individual doesn’t fully understand their health status or instructions for their health care, they could cause harm to themselves or others they care for. When confused about what to do, they may ignore symptoms or take incorrect preventative measures—increasing the risk of serious health complications. 

3. Healthcare Costs

Individuals with low health literacy are more likely to (opens as a PDF) skip preventative care measures, such as annual well-visits, mammograms, and vaccines, which increases medical costs. Inconsistent care incurs higher costs due to more medication and treatment, more frequent hospitalizations, longer hospital stays, and mismanagement of chronic health conditions.  

Why is Health Literacy Important?

Improving health literacy is an important step to improving public health overall—it’s also a task that falls primarily to health professionals. These professionals should work together to ensure information and materials are presented to patient populations in a clear, concise manner using simplified language that is easily understood.  

Wellsource HRAs are developed with health literacy in mind, written at an engaging reading level that adheres to Medicaid, Medicare, and CLAS (National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services) standards. This allows clinicians, population health managers, and health plans to communicate clearly and improve the health and well-being of their members. 

Health Literacy Guide: Health Outcomes

Download our Health Literacy Guide for tips to improve your communications and address health literacy concerns within your population. 

Tags: health risk assessment, health literacy

"In looking at the importance of health literacy, there’s a direct correlation between communication, quality of life, and healthcare costs."