What is Health Literacy and what are you going to do about it?


Photo by Tim Samoff

What is “Health Literacy”? There is no definitive definition of health literacy. “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” is one example definitionThe National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy reports that “nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our health care facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities”. There are many examples of patient misunderstandings and communication failures: the woman who mistakenly took her oral contraceptive vaginally and wound up pregnant. The new diabetic, who while in the hospital, practiced injecting his insulin shots into an orange; a short time after discharge, he was readmitted with life-threateningly elevated blood sugar levels. The doctors discovered that, at home, he was injecting his insulin into an orange, then eating it. Or how about the patient who was told to take her antibiotic until it was gone? She took the antibiotic until “it” was gone, the fever not the medication. Consequently, her infection returned and she was required to take a second course of medication.

The U.S. government is involved in addressing health literacy in a big way. Many HHS agency websites offer health literacy resources and/or provide information regarding health literacy initiatives:

What are you doing in your practice to ensure your patients understand what you are telling them?