How’s your health literacy? Literacy, in this instance, doesn’t only mean can you read and write—are you literate. It means can you read instructions on a bottle of medicine, can you listen to a healthcare professional tell you about your health problem and walk away fully understanding what she said, and can you then figure out how to get the care you need for that particular problem?
The IOM defines 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.”
By any definition, I suspect that most of us fall short of acing the health literacy quiz.
I went in to see my dermatologist last week. Every year I go to her office, she looks at my rosacea, and renews my prescriptions.
And every year I learn something new about my meds.
I’m not sure if she’s not offering all the information or if I’m not retaining it.
This year, I learned that I have to take Oracea® at the same time every day because it lasts 24 hours. If I take it at 6:00 p.m. one day and 7:00 a.m. the next day, that’s too often, and if I take it at 7:00 a.m. one day and 6:00 p.m. the next day, that’s not often enough.
I could swear that she did not tell me this basic piece of information at any time in the past. (I’ve been taking this pill for three years.) She could swear that I’m not paying attention and that she did tell me at some point.
I looked at the bottle when I got home and directions were to take one capsule by mouth one time daily (didn’t mention the same time of day thing).
I don’t know. It’s hard to say where the communication fell down. The point is, it did.
So what can we as patients do about our health literacy?
There’s a lot of info on the web for clinicians and others on how to communicate with those who have low health literacy. In other words, putting the onus of improvement on the provider.
That’s good. Many providers don’t talk the talk of the non-scientist. But what can we do to keep up our end of the relationship?
It’s harder than you’d think. Because we’re not medically trained, we don’t always know to ask certain questions. We rely on the provider to tell us what we need to know (and then some).
One provider I saw recently wanted to prescribe a medicine that I’ve not used before. What are the side effects, I wanted to know.
He snorted impatiently and pulled out his smartphone and showed me a list and said he didn’t have time to go through them all, but if I wanted to sit there and read them I could.
On the other side of that coin, I don’t write down everything a provider tells me about a new medicine. I trust to memory and the directions on the bottle. Not always the way to go, apparently.
Here’s a starting place, if you want to create a checklist for yourself: http://www.ahrq.gov/questions/
Share any other ideas you have in the comments. Maybe we can chip away at this wall from our side while the providers do the same on their side.
One day, the wall will be gone.
By Trish Parnell