Improving Health Literacy

21 06 2010

Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have problems understanding and using basic health information.

Insufficient health literacy (a person’s ability to understand health information) is not limited to a select group.  It cuts across all cultures, levels of education and income, and all age groups.

We need to be educated to improve our health literacy, so that we can make optimal health-related choices.

Toward this end, the Department of Health and Human Services, led by Howard K. Koh, M.D., M.P.H., Assistant Secretary for Health, has developed the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy.

The plan does a good job of outlining the barriers to health literacy, identifying goals, and providing some steps to reach those goals:

  • Develop and disseminate health and safety information that is accurate, accessible, and actionable
  • Promote changes in the health care system that improve health information, communication, informed decisionmaking, and access to health services
  • Incorporate accurate, standards-based, and developmentally appropriate health and science information and curricula in childcare and education through the university level
  • Support and expand local efforts to provide adult education, English language instruction, and culturally and linguistically appropriate health information services in the community
  • Build partnerships, develop guidance, and change policies
  • Increase basic research and the development, implementation, and evaluation of practices and interventions to improve health literacy
  • Increase the dissemination and use of evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions

The American Medical Association (AMA) Foundation has done a lot of work over the years toward improving health literacy, providing helpful tips and tools to physicians to improve communication and understanding between patients and providers.

In fact, lots of groups are working on health literacy.  If you search the term on the Internet, you’ll get half a million results or more.

If so many people are working on it, why is it still a problem?

It’s a tough nut to crack. Low literacy is a key factor in non-compliance with healthcare recommendations. For example, if the directions for taking medication are complicated, or the instructions for recovery from surgery are hard to understand, chances are patients will be reluctant to ask for help in deciphering the language and therefore they will not be able to follow the directions. In other words, they become non-compliant.

Unfortunately, many healthcare professionals don’t always know why a patient is not responding to treatment.  They may not know that there’s a non-compliance issue and that it’s connected to low health literacy.

Low health literacy plays a significant role in:

For the health of our population, we as educators need to become better at finding ways to improve health literacy. Perhaps Dr. Koh’s plan will blaze some trails.

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