October is Health Literacy Month! People working in health information use the term health literacy a lot. But what is health literacy and how can we improve it? What resources are available to help support health literacy?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.” (Healthy People 2020)
Even with this definition, health literacy is a complex issue that is affected by many factors, but culture can be a major component with cultural backgrounds influencing belief systems, communication styles, and understanding and responses to health information (NLM-Health Literacy).
Health literacy also relies on many skills to process information on prevention, diagnosis, treatment and make decisions about the best course of action. Skills include understanding health care services and insurance, calculating dosages and understanding treatment instructions, communicating with providers, evaluating the quality and credibility of information, understand results and locate health information.
A person’s ability to complete these tasks relay on literacy (visual and written), computer literacy (can use a computer and find information online), and numerical literacy (can calculate and reason with numbers).
And like many aspects of medicine and healthcare, health literacy has disparities that contribute to disparities in outcomes. Older adults, English Language Learners, people with less than a high school education and disability may influence a person’s health literacy. (Healthy People 2020)
So what can we do?