Health Literacy Is Not Just about Your Reading Level

We all have friends who are brilliant (e.g, can give you the dates of every World War, can explain nanotechnology, can transpose music instantly, etc), but when it comes to health issues, they don’t know what the difference is between an allergy and the flu.  Nearly all of us have some problems with health literacy.

Health literacy is not only about reading.  It’s about understanding difficult health terms and conditions.   For example, health literacy plays a role in how well:

  • Someone knows to take the right medicine at the right time (Is it two pills once a day or is it one pill two times a day!).
  • A person with diabetes properly manages the condition (How many of us understand the glucose cycle in the body?).
  • A parent follows instructions for helping a child recover from surgery (You just want to hug them!).
  • You are able to sort out what bills cover the hospital, the doctors, and the office visits!

Limited literacy can literally harm your health.   The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), has developed a plan to help doctors and their staff improve communications with all patients, especially those who do not speak the local language, have ongoing mental and physical ailments that may affect their judgment and ability to listen, and someone who has just learned they have a deadly disease.

In addition, Carolyn Clancy, MD, director of AHRQ, recently provided a list of activities individuals can do to improve literacy.   They are:

  • Ask questions.   She suggests you prepare a list of questions prior to your appoint and her agency provides a sample LIST.
  • Repeat information back to your doctor or nurse.  Do not hesitate to say, “Let me see if I understand this….”
  • Bring all your medicines to your next visit.   Go over the instructions on the labels and make sure there are no drugs that negatively  interact, especially with over the counter meds that you may take without your doctor’s knowledge.
  • Bring a friend.
  • If you don’t speak the same language as your doctor, ask to have a translator available.
  • Make a Pill card.   Directions are available HERE.