Taking care of ourselves is an important part of life. But more than that, we should be able to prevent, manage and understand any health problems that arise. This is called health literacy.
Health literacy is important because it helps people find the right health care and services, take care of a chronic condition or disease, or simply maintain their health and wellness.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine define health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”
Health literacy is much more than being able to read. The National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM) wrote that it requires several skills: reading and listening, as well as analytical and decision-making, then the ability to apply these skills together when it comes to health situation.
Health.gov gave some examples which involve math skills: calculating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and measuring medications. Or when deciding between different health plans or prescription drug coverage, you need to calculate the differences in premiums, co-pays and deductibles.
Talking out loud about any health concerns is also important. Patients need the ability to talk about their health concerns and to accurately describe any symptoms. Asking the right questions and understanding medical advice is part of health literacy, said NN/LM.
Even people with these skills can face health literacy issues when they navigate the health care system. Filling out forms and finding providers and services can be challenging. Practicing self-care and chronic-disease management can be even greater challenges, stated Health.gov.
Some may be unfamiliar with medical terms or be unable to understand statistics and assess risks and benefits. Imagine being diagnosed with a serious illness — being confused and scared can also affect someone’s health literacy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People with poor health literacy may find themselves overwhelmed by a health condition because their abilities and skills don’t match up to the demands on them and/or the complexity of the current health care system.
Low health literacy affects everyone, but as the National Academies wrote, the chronically ill and elderly are most at risk. They also have the highest health care needs and expenses.
Low health literacy doesn’t just affect individuals. The economy also takes a hit.
According to the report, ]]> Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy]]>, low health literacy is estimated to cost the U.S. economy between $106 billion and $238 billion each year. This equates to between 7 percent and 17 percent of all personal health care costs.
Now and in the future, we will be faced with making all types of decisions about our health. Strong health literacy will play an essential role in our ability to do so.
Reviewed October 31, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
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