Improving Health Literacy—Why It Matters

Improving Health Literacy—Why It Matters
September 26, 2022 Sue Riordan
Improving health literacy

Have you ever left your doctor’s office or pharmacy feeling unsure about your treatment plan? Or maybe you received a challenging diagnosis and weren’t sure where to start with asking questions? If so, you’re not alone.

Understanding your health care, also known as health literacy, is the first step to making informed decisions for you and your family. Health literacy is the idea that patients should be able to comprehend and apply medical information or services provided to them.

Nearly 90 million Americans face reduced health literacy, putting patients at a serious disadvantage when it comes to health maintenance1. Percentages also go up based on various social determinants, including:

    • Socioeconomic status.
    • Race.
    • Geographic location.
    • Education level.
    • Access to health care.

Additionally, limitations in understanding medical information puts unnecessary strains on hospitals and health care systems and may be very costly. The Center of Disease Control (CDC) notes nearly one million hospitalizations could be prevented by improving health literacy, saving over 25 billion dollars per year in related expenses2. Plus, better quality of care means better outcomes for patients.

Improving health literacy on an individual and organizational level helps people better advocate for themselves and improves access to care and information.

What is health literacy?

On an individual level, health literacy is the ability to find, understand, and use health information for you or others you care for. It’s important when it comes to following treatment plans, medication dosing, protocols and understanding risks and other factors.

Many things impact how you comprehend health information, such as:

    • Language barriers.
    • Limited reading or number skills.
    • Physical or mental conditions.

Even those who don’t normally struggle with health literacy sometimes run into issues when health gets compromised. Illness, pain, health anxiety and fear can all affect comprehension and decision-making abilities.

Medical knowledge is also complex—so it’s easy to become lost when trying to figure it out alone. This is where organizations are able to play a role. Hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics and pharmacies can take steps to improve health literacy by providing accurate information, making complex concepts easy to understand, answering questions and finding ways around social barriers. They often serve as a first point of contact for those seeking health care.

Forming partnerships with community groups may also help expand health literacy. For example, libraries offering classes on Medicare for older adults or providing a health insurance seminar in Spanish supports populations who may not have otherwise known how to best meet their health needs. This helps patients make informed decisions about their care.

Creating health equity

Health equity occurs when all people have fair access to health care and the opportunity to use services to their full potential. Finding ways to make health equity a reality is a huge step toward improving health outcomes, especially within marginal communities. Access can be improved by:

    • Seeking feedback on medical information materials before sending them out.
    • Avoiding jargon whenever possible.
    • Providing translation services for a variety of languages.
    • Using clear, transparent communication.

Every inclusive action counts toward achieving health equity—both on a large and small scale.

You can also take steps to improve your own health literacy. These include seeking information from trusted sources, asking for clarification or a second opinion, taking notes during appointments, or bringing a support person, like a relative or friend, to help you ask questions to your provider.

It might feel intimidating to ask questions or speak up—but your health depends on it!

Committed to healthier living

At Meritain Health®, we support healthier living.

If you’re an employer looking for ways to make health care more inclusive for your employees, we have tools and point solutions that may help! Contact us today to find out more.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice.