The Good. The Bad. The Outlandish. Who can tell?
“Do not take this medication if you are pregnant or become pregnant. Do not take this medication with any product containing aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen without the consent of a physician. Do not drink alcoholic beverages while taking this medicine. If you suffer from diabetes, liver disease, kidney dysfunction, or Crohn’s disease, do not take this medication.” WOW – that’s a lot of “don’ts”!
This is just one example of the types of warnings seen on prescription medications – and – it’s just one example of how language in the healthcare field can appear to be a prescription for insanity rather than for a cure. We have all been there before (or watched a family member go through a similar experience) – due to illness, surgery, or other unanticipated health concern. And more than likely, we have all had to follow certain medical instructions, read health information, and/or take specific medications – sometimes more than one at a time.
What is Health Literacy?
Health literacy or the lack thereof, is a global, concern; especially for aging populations and individuals with language barriers. The American Medical Association (AMA) declared that inadequate health literacy is “a stronger predictor of a person’s health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race.” Staggering. But not so surprising when we examine the dynamics of health, health care and sick care.
But what is health literacy? And how is it useful to us? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Essentially, health literacy involves the ability to comprehend and follow medical instructions, prescription medication instructions, general health information, consent forms, and medical procedures. Health literacy also involves another vital component – being able to negotiate and navigate incredibly complex and challenging health care systems. It is not enough to be able to read the instructions on a prescription bottle, rather it is necessary and crucial to analyze the information presented and make an informed decision based on the analysis of that information. As healthcare consumers, it is critical to develop skills to assist us in being our own advocates and taking active steps to improve and/or maintain personal health and well-being.
The consequences of low health literacy are far reaching. Studies have shown that individuals with poor health literacy skills have poor health, experience greater medication and/or treatment errors, have higher health care costs, and utilize health care services more than individuals with moderate or proficient skills. There is also a significant economic impact due to low health literacy skills.
Developing Knowledge and Taking Action
Improving health literacy skills benefits more than just the individual – it can improve the economy and facilitate change in the way we communicate about health. So, how is it possible to tackle this growing concern? Here are a few useful tips.
- Build a knowledge base. Research information regarding health literacy. Here are a few useful and reputable resources.
- Spread the word. Share health literacy knowledge with family and friends – even colleagues and supervisors. The work place provides a solid platform for the promotion and practice of health literacy.
- Conduct an interview. This sounds more complicated than it really needs to be. If you are new to an area or need to find a primary healthcare provider, consider putting together a list of questions you have and asking them during your appointment. This will provide an opportunity for you to evaluate the chemistry between you and the potential healthcare provider – if it does not feel right, it probably isn’t.
- Be your own advocate. This means being an informed and engaged consumer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, ask for clarification, or ask for help. Utilize patient information services to your benefit. When confused about medications, take advantage of patient education opportunities through your local pharmacy. Speak up when you are uncomfortable or concerned about a suggested course of treatment – ask for other non-surgical or non-prescription avenues before making an important health decision.
Fortunately, health literacy is something we can all work to positively influence, direct, and promote. The cycle of change starts with us – by educating ourselves, we can educate our families, friends, and colleagues. In turn, we can influence our communities, places of employment, organizations, schools, hospitals, and clinics and other entities to participate in the promotion and practice of health literacy skill development. In doing so, we will write our own “prescription” for a positive change.