October means it’s Health Literacy Month! This allows us a time to recognize the importance of making health information easy to access and the healthcare system easier to navigate, as this can have large public health implications.
What is Health Literacy?
Health literacy is “...the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions” (Health Resources and Services Administration).
Those with low health literacy may have difficulty locating healthcare providers, filling out health forms, sharing their medical history with providers, managing chronic conditions, and understanding directions on how to properly take their medications.
More than one third of English-speaking adults in the United States have basic (22%) or below basic (14%) health literacy; only 12% have proficient health literacy. Compared with adults with proficient health literacy, 42% of adults with below basic health literacy skills are more likely to report their health as poor (American Public Health Association).
Low health literacy is more prevalent among older adults, minority populations, those of low socioeconomic status, and medically underserved people.
How is it Relevant to Public Health?
More and more publications are seeming to determine health literacy as a major determinant of public health.
The United Nations recognizes the significant impact of health literacy on public health and has called for the development of appropriate action plans to address the problem of limited health literacy. Limited health literacy is negatively associated with “...physical and mental health outcomes, including the use of preventive services; management of chronic conditions; self-reported health; misunderstanding of prescription medication instructions; medication errors; poor comprehension of nutrition labels; and mortality” (American Public Health Association).
In the sense of chronic conditions and improving the mortality of vulnerable populations including the elderly, minority groups, those living in poverty, etc., improving health literacy is key to ensuring the health of these populations. Being able to read something as simple as a pill bottle may not seem significant to most of us, but we take these skills for granted; for those who don’t have the skills, simply taking medications can be a challenge in itself, which can lead those with poor health literacy to struggle in managing their conditions, potentially shortening their lifespan.
What Can We Do to Improve Health Literacy?
The American Public Health Association offers several suggestions for how to improve health literacy. Here are a few:
Adopt legislation that requires government documents and those of state-regulated industries to be communicated in plain, easy-to-understand language that is clear to the general public.
Reform legislation that recognizes health education as a core subject by the US Department of Education and requires instruction by people who are certified, licensed, or endorsed by the state in health education.
Calls for healthcare education facilities to improve the training of health professionals about evidence-based strategies to spread health and safety information that is accurate, accessible, and actionable by the intended audiences.