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Making Sense of the Numbers—Health Numeracy and You (and Me)

Posted by on October 2nd, 2017 Posted in: K-12, Training & Education
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This post is the first in our “Health Literacy Month” series happening this month, October 2017

As health care becomes more sophisticated and complex, it’s more and more likely that we will face situations where we have to use numerical skills to figure out our own treatment choices.  Our capacity to deal with the numerical component of health information is called “health numeracy” and it’s akin to health literacy, but is not the same thing (people can have high literacy and low numeracy, and you can’t tell by looking what a person’s numeracy level is!).   The challenges relating to numeracy are many, and can defeat even people (including health care providers) with the best intentions.  According to an article in The New York Times, one study found that almost 85% of parents gave their children the wrong dose of liquid cough medicine, and of those wrong doses, 68% were overdoses.  Scary!

So, now, want to learn more?

First, consider attending a FREE online health numeracy class, “Making Sense of Numbers: Understanding Risks and Benefits, and Learning How to Communicate Health Statistics”.  It’s by the NNLM’s own Michelle Burda, and it’s a great overview of the topic, and some ways to think about numerical aspects of health.

Second, if you want an overview of how to work with people who may have numeracy challenges, check out this article (coincidentally, by me, and starting on page 28), “Safety in Numbers: Helping People with Health Numeracy Challenges (Which is All of Us)”.

Third, we can talk about best practices around numeracy all we want, but what happens when you are a numeracy expert and yet are faced with your own health challenge which requires you to calculate risks and future possibilities?  You will find that it’s not ALL about the numbers!  Listen here, to the moving story of Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher.

And last but not least, take a look at a great tool developed by Dr. Zikmund-Fisher.  It’s called IconArray (and there’s a clinician-focused version too!).  If you are wanting to show what a certain percentage, or risk, looks like (to anyone, not just someone you think may have limited numeracy!) it takes 30 seconds with this great tool–see the screenshot below.

Do you have any numeracy-related tips or tricks that you want to share?  Please enter them in the comments—we’re all in this together!

Image of the author ABOUT Ann Glusker

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Developed resources reported in this program are supported by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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