Are You (Health) Literate?

13 02 2013

plainenglishHow’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.”

Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

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.

Hmmmm.

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





Vaccine Education Center

28 04 2011

Dr. Paul Offit, Director, VEC

The science of vaccines can be . . . daunting. The lists of ingredients and potential side effects make us want to second guess ourselves and our children’s providers. We need to be sure we’re making safe choices.

And the complicated schedules! They’re enough to make sane people pound their heads.

The folks at the Vaccine Education Center (VEC) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have a gift for presenting the complexities of vaccines and attending issues in a way that’s easy to understand yet comprehensive in scope.

The VEC website has a special section for parents and adults of all ages.  While there, you can sign up for the Parents PACK newsletter to get monthly immunization updates.  In the March issue, there’s a timely post on measles and the dangers of rubella parties.

You’ll also find age-specific information on vaccines and the diseases they prevent. There are FAQs, but if you can’t find your question, you can send it in via a form provided on the site.

The VEC has created a library of educational materials on specific vaccines and commonly asked questions. These resources range from information sheets to more consumer-friendly bookmarks and brochures.

They also maintain essential tools, including vaccine schedules, facts about vaccine preventable diseases, and the latest in vaccine science.

To keep information fresh, the VEC pens a monthly “Ask the VEC” on a myriad of topics.

Starting in 2011, the VEC will present three or four webinars a year addressing evolving issues, recent ACIP meetings, new science and media reports.

There are layers and layers of information available on the website, for those of us who feel more is better.  And what parent doesn’t?

The VEC staff constantly works at sifting vaccine fact from fiction and explaining the difference in ways we can all understand.  If you have questions, they’re worth checking out.





Sand, Surf, and What?!

25 04 2011

Kids love to dig in the sand and build castles. They’ll work for hours, crafting structures of dizzying heights, sculpting the turrets and drawbridges just so with their hands.

Oh, and getting buried in the sand? Even better.

Turns out, all that digging and getting buried can expose kids to lots of germs.  Researchers found “… evidence of gastrointestinal illnesses, upper respiratory illnesses, rash, eye ailments, earache and infected cuts. Diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses were more common in about 13 percent of people who reported digging in sand, and in about 23 percent of those who reported being buried in sand.”

Just makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it?  Before you give up on the beach, know that there are things we can do to combat the germs.

Tell the kids they can play in the sand, but not to touch their faces with sandy hands, and make sure they clean their hands with soap or sanitizer when they’re done playing.  Also, send them to scrub down in a shower as soon as possible after play.  There’s no guarantee they’ll avoid an infection, but it’ll help.

Kids (and adults) love to swim in pools, lakes, and oceans. We’re usually swimming in urine,  garbage, or who knows what contaminants.  Due to the reality of raw sewage runoff, we could come down with all sorts of infections, including E. coli, after practicing the backstroke.

Blech, but hey, everything carries a risk. There’s no guarantee we’ll get sick or we won’t get sick from swimming.

So go. Swim. Enjoy and shower when you’re done.

Life is too short not to have fun on vaca!

(Photo from dMap Travel Guide)





April: STD Awareness Month

21 04 2011

There are an estimated 19 million new cases of STDs each year in the United States.  That’s too many.  We can significantly cut that number down.

April, the STD Awareness Month, is a time to shine a light on sex and disease.

STDs know no age limits, they can be visible or invisible and, yes, they can even affect our own sons and daughters. STDs also have a serious economic impact, with direct medical costs estimated at $17.0 billion annually  in this country alone.

The majority of STDs are preventable. Just by having a frank discussion with our partners, and using the appropriate protection, we can prevent most sexually transmitted diseases.

These are practical resources to help individuals and parents learn more about STDs and how to deal with current or potential infections:

There is never anything embarrassing about protecting our health. So wrap it up, protect yourself and keep STDs at bay!

(Photo courtesy of Andy54321)





What Comes With a Kiss?

14 02 2011

A kiss can be a greeting between friends, or it can mean so much more. We enjoy it either way, don’t we?

Health-wise, locking lips can be both a benefit and a burden.

Scientists don’t completely understand why we kiss, but humans are not the only lip smackers on the planet. Animals, including apes, also practice kissing-like behaviors.

The Good Kiss

We get a serious physical response from a good kiss. Kisses cause a brain fireworks show. Sensory neurons from our lips send signals to our brain and body, kicking off sensory sparks, intense emotions, and physical reactions.

Getting to first base can be a huge stress reliever, and holding hands and kissing has been known to lower blood pressure as well as boost our immune systems.

When we get a passionate kiss, our brain oozes a bit of dopamine in the ventral tegmental part of the brain, which is the same region that is tickled by addictive drugs like cocaine. Our body sure does like getting love pecks.

Swapping spit can also help keep your teeth pearly white. Saliva acts as a natural lubricant, slipping under plaque and washing it away. It can even protect teeth from decay by neutralizing harmful acids.

Finally, a good make-out session can benefit your heart. We burn 12 calories for every five seconds of vigorous kissing .

The Bad Kiss

While Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle said, “If you are ever in doubt as to whether to kiss a pretty girl, always give her the benefit of the doubt,” there are some good reasons to put a pause in your pucker.

Kisses can spread germs and infections. One milliliter of saliva contains about 100,000,000 bacteria. And, according to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), with just one kiss, couples can share more than 500 different types of disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

Not exactly romantic, huh?

Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus and spread by skin-on-skin contact. Flu and cold viruses can be shared lover-to-lover through necking. Also, mononucleosis, heralded as the kissing disease “mono” is easily spread through a good French kiss, as well as by sharing food, a cup, utensils or straws with an infected person.

With a sloppy kiss, we pass on the bacteria that cause cavities. This can also happen when a parent sucks on a child’s pacifier or eating utensil with their mouth.

We don’t need to get worked up about this, but it’s good to know that along with fireworks can come cavities.

As your thoughts turn to love on this Valentine’s Day, consider Shakespeare’s words: “I can express no kinder sign of love, than this kind kiss.”

Smooch on, dear readers, smooch on!





Over 50? Beware of STDs

6 01 2011

Did you ever think you’d be over 50, sexually active, and dealing with an STD?

Safer sex warnings should not only be directed at teens and younger Americans, but to those of us in the AARP crowd as well.

Americans over 50 are sexually active and many factors account for this, including divorce, the advent of prescriptions for erectile dysfunction, and an increased life expectancy.

And with sexual activity can come sexually transmitted diseases. Unfortunately, age is no protection against STDs. Many older adults assume that because they aren’t regularly practicing high risk behaviors such as IV drug use or sex with multiple partners, they are protected.

Older men and women tend to believe they are immune from “all of that,” speaking euphemistically. But it is that kind of thinking that is leading to an increase in STD infections—everything from herpes to HIV.

HIV/AIDS is rapidly spreading among men and women over 50.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends routine HIV/AIDS testing for all Americans ages 13 to 64. Dr. John G. Bartlett, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, sees the new guidelines as a “call to action that the test will be offered on a more regular basis.”

And some experts, including Dr. Veronica Miller, Director of the Forum for Collaborative HIV Research at George Washington University Medical Center, even feel HIV tests should be as “routine as a flu shot.”

The CDC estimates that those over 50 account for 15% of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses and 24% of those living with HIV/AIDS in this country.

A quarter of a million people living with HIV are unaware of their infection status and are consequently not seeking help for themselves, and may not be ensuring protection from infection for their sexual partners.

Healthcare providers need to take note of the increasing risk of STD infections in their older patients, and  emphasize testing and sex education at every opportunity.





Twilight Love Bites… Ouch!

28 07 2010

The Twilight Series: It’s the rage among teens.  It’s a love story with hip, modern-day vampires.  Love the books, love the movies, but do NOT love the Twilight trend that is emerging among teen friends and couples: biting.

Teens caught up in the Twilight rage are “leaving their marks” on each other as a sign of closeness.  What does this mean?  It means that they are biting each other.  As parents, we thought we had left that nightmare long behind us in the toddler years!  It’s returned, and the implications are even more serious.

First there are the socio-psycho implications. Teen biting is a form of branding, and a form of ownership.  Some teens believe it shows commitment to a significant other, or group of friends. One teen noted biting was an “add-on to kissing,” comparing it to putting a case on his iPhone.

It seemed we had all but eliminated the idea of “blood brothers and blood sisters,” and now we have teens that cut each other’s skin to taste each other’s blood.    

This is extremely dangerous and can cause serious infections.  The human mouth is filled with bacteria, and a bite that draws blood can have serious implications.  If biting has occurred, we need to look for signs of more serious bites, including:   swelling, redness, pain, and pus at the site.   All bites need to be carefully cleaned, and may require treatment with oral or IV antibiotics. 

What often goes unmentioned is the danger of spreading bloodborne diseases,  such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and B, and syphilis.  

There is a vaccine for hepatitis B, so please be sure your teen is vaccinated.  There are no vaccines for HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C.  These diseases do not discriminate, and if your biting, vampire-loving teen chooses to engage in such activities, she may end up with an infectious disease that at best remains with her for the rest of her life, and at worst, takes her life.

You can find evidence of this craze on teen-made YouTube videos and Facebook pages.  Some teens say they have been biting their partners for over a year. 

We all need to be talking to our teens about the health risks involved in this practice.  They need to hear our opinion on this; it will make a difference when it comes time for them to choose to participate in this risky behavior—or not.