How’s Your Health Literacy?

Health literacy.


Have you heard this term lately? And if so, what’s it mean to you?


Here’s the definition of healthcare literacy that I picked up from the, the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:


“Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”


That’s kind of a mouthful. So I will break it down in terms of the way that I personally think of health literacy, and the way that I talk about it with my clients. Health literacy skills include:


  • Knowing where to find information about your condition, including knowing the difference between trustworthy and not so trustworthy information.


  • Being able to use the information you obtain to team up with your healthcare team, including asking questions about what you learned as well as making suggestions. And maybe even pushing back, based on what you have learned.


  • Making informed decisions regarding the treatment of your chronic condition, as well how to maintain an optimal self-care routine.
  • And being aware what services are available to you, as well as how to get the most from your insurance company or Medicare/Medicaid.


Basically, health literacy provides the foundation you need to be an empowered healthcare consumer. After all, it’s a whole lot easier to take charge of your healthcare when you are confident in knowing what you’re talking about. Before you become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information, health literacy occurs over time.


To be honest, my clients don’t always want to be all that literate about their chronic condition. I find that my newly-diagnosed clients can be especially resistant to getting informed. They worry that they will hear or read something scary or upsetting. They feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available to them, as well as the technical terms they run into. Or they feel like their doctor will feel betrayed if they question his/her guidance. Basically, excuses that keep them in the dark.


Some denial may be operating here as well. I have had clients who just wanted the chronic condition to go away, or at least fade into the background, and thought that if they ignored it long enough, it might slink away. But we all know that doesn’t work. Right?


Having said all of this, I do totally get that achieving health literacy can be a daunting task. Not even sure where to start? Or, not sure how to maintain the health literacy you have achieved so far? Here’s help:


Ask your doctor to use simpler terms. Healthcare professionals speak in professional shorthand, which includes medical terms which have a very specific meaning to them but may not mean much to you. When you need your doctor to use layperson’s terms, then let him/her know. It’s a simple as saying something like, “I am not quite sure what you mean. Could you use some easier words?” Your doctor may be happy to repeat, or your doctor may appear a little annoyed if it is an especially busy day. But believe me, your doctor benefits when patients understand what’s being conveyed.


Ask your doctor to let you show or tell what you just learned. One of the best ways to assure that a message has been received is to repeat it back. If your doctor has given you instructions, then ask if you can tell him/her what was just said to you, to make sure you are in sync. If your doctor has taught you something, like a self-care procedure, then ask if you can pretend to be the doctor and teach him/her how to do it. This is an excellent way to solidify what you have learned, and to assure that you leave with both you and your doctor are confident that you know what you need to know.


Choose a few trustworthy websites to follow. When you first start to research your chronic condition, the web can feel like the wild west, with danger lurking everywhere. If you’re just getting started, you might start with the website of a non-profit organization that is dedicated to research, information, and patient support for individuals living with your chronic condition, like the American Diabetes Association or the American Heart Association. You might find links to other sites on these sites. You might ask your doctor for recommendations of information sources. Over time, sooner or later, you will find other sites with trustworthy information, and other features you are looking for like discussion boards (hint, hint).


Check back on your go-to sites to keep up to date. As you encounter sites that you find especially interesting and helpful, then bookmark them. Going forward, remind yourself to check into your go-to sites periodically, to stay abreast of any new information. This will help to assure that you stay current. As you learn new information, don’t hesitate to bring it up with your doctor.


Take a broad view. As you expand your health literacy, your most immediate concern will most likely be understanding your chronic condition and its treatment. Certainly important. But don’t forget to also stay current on health resources in your community. As well as issues that might affect your health coverage. You never know when an issue might arise that will require you to make an informed decision.


Make your health literacy a priority. This will help you to better manage your chronic condition. To prevent additional health problems. And to protect your health in the event of an unforeseen challenge. Information is power!