What Is Health Literacy?

October is Health Literacy month, a great time for organizations to promote the importance of understandable health information. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, defines health literacy as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. David Ruby, Medical Librarian with Aurora Health Care says, “Part of health literacy is being able to understand the meaning of the advice given and understanding what the doctor, nurse, medical website or text is telling you.” Research by the National Patient Safety Foundation shows that most people need help understanding health care information, regardless of reading level, and prefer information that is easy to read and understand.

The National Center for Education Statistics reveals the health of 90 million people in the U.S. may be at risk because of the difficulty some patients experience in understanding and acting upon health information. The American Medical Association says that literacy skills are a stronger predictor of health status than age, income, employment status, education level, or racial/ethnic group. It is estimated that one in five Americans reads at the fifth grade level or below, and the average American reads at an eighth or ninth grade level. Most health care literature is written at a tenth grade level. “It is very important for consumers to understand what they are hearing or reading,” states Ruby. “Making sure our patients have the proper information is a valuable resource. The right amount of information is critical; we don’t want them to have too much or too little, and we want them to have the right amount of technical details. Librarians can connect them with that information.” Research does suggest that people with low literacy levels are more likely to make medication and treatment errors, are less likely to comply with treatments, are less likely to be able to negotiate with the health care system, and are at higher risk for hospitalization. 

“Health literacy helps patients ask the right questions, so they are prepared and know what to expect from their appointments,” explains Ruby. “When people understand their medical condition, they can ask appropriate questions regarding medications and treatments. They can utilize quality resources to research conditions or medications, and go to the physician informed about relevant symptoms they may be experiencing and treatment options available.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that persons with limited health literacy skills are more likely to have chronic conditions and are less able to manage them effectively.  It is estimated that the communication disconnect of health information between health care providers and consumers costs between $106-$238 billion per year.

Aurora Medical Center in Oshkosh offers community members an opportunity to become more health literate. “Finding Reliable Health Information” is a class offered to anyone who is interested in learning more about surfing the Internet for health information. “Using the Internet to find reliable health information can be overwhelming,” states Ruby. “Knowing which sites are reliable and credible is very important. Patients need to be aware of sites that are biased, trying to sell them something, are outdated, or that make claims that are not supported by an authority or simply wrong.” Ruby states that a person can call 920-456-7039 to schedule this free class any time.

Medical libraries, such as the one at Aurora Health Care, can be great resources for patients to improve their health literacy. “The library is a usable patient resource,” states Ruby. “It can demystify questions about medical diagnosis, tests, and pharmaceuticals. It can assist in basic health terminology and can make a diagnosis less scary for the patient or their family.”