MAY 6, 2019
It was 9 pm on a Sunday night when my friend *Alex called. “Can you take me to the emergency room?” she asked. Wanting to be a helpful and supportive friend, I of course agreed.
As we drove there, I found out that this was the fifth time she’d been to the emergency room that month — and the second time that day. While Alex certainly has severe health challenges, several of those emergency room trips could have been addressed by a doctor during regular office hours. But because of Alex’s lack of knowledge about her own health and the healthcare system, whenever something went wrong, the emergency room was her go-to solution. Not only this, but not knowing some health basics exaggerated the health problems she did have, sometimes making the emergency room necessary when it could have been prevented.
It’s easy to see why Alex has a hard time understanding health and healthcare. With complicated health terminology and rapidly progressing medical knowledge, Alex isn’t the only one who struggles to understand!
Lacking Health Literacy
Health literacy, or the ability to “obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions1,” is a pretty rare skill these days. In fact, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy, with over 75 million adults having either basic or below basic levels of health literacy.2
You may be thinking, what’s the big deal if people don’t know doctor lingo? But the issue of health literacy goes deeper than just simple communication barriers. The US Department of Health found that the same people who have the most limited health literacy also report the worst health.3 People with low health literacy are also more likely to go to the emergency room, stay in the hospital, and ignore treatment plans. This low health literacy is also linked with higher mortality rates.4
Thankfully, you don’t have to be one of those 75 million adults. There are things we can do to become more health literate today.
Becoming More Health Literate
1. Ask questions
Healthcare professionals won’t know that you’re confused unless you tell them. So don’t be afraid to ask questions! Ask what things mean, get clarification about your condition or prescription, and find out how you can better take care of yourself. Your doctor will be glad you asked — and so will you. (For a list of questions to ask your doctor, check out this website from the Agency for Healthcare and Research Quality).5
2. Take community health classes
Many communities offer free health-related classes, whether it be nutrition, child development, or mental health. As you take advantage of these resources, you’ll become more educated about your health. This can help you know what questions to ask your healthcare provider (see #1), understand how to deal with current health challenges, and know how to prevent even bigger health problems down the road.
3. Use online resources
With all the information available online, tons of resources are available to explain health issues simply and clearly. (Of course, as you search, make sure your source is credible. While “mom blogs” can be fun, they really aren’t the place to go for health advice.) These resources can help increase your understanding about health, insurance, and more so you can make informed decisions. For example, healthcare.gov offers a great website to help you understand some basic health insurance jargon6 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a great website explaining nutrition basics7 These sources and many like it can help you improve your health literacy.
Hopefully, you don’t have to visit the emergency room five times in a month. But we can all do things to improve our health literacy and, in turn, improve our health.
Whether it’s simply asking your healthcare provider questions, going to community classes, or taking advantage of credible sources online, information is out there to help you understand. So take action today to improve your health literacy–if not for your sake than at least for the sake of your children!
*Name changed for privacy reasons