October is Health Literacy Month and the Prevent Cancer Foundation is committed to helping individuals from all backgrounds have access to, and understand, important health and medical information.
What is health literacy?
The Institute of Medicine (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.” In other words, our healthcare system is hard to navigate and medical information is exceedingly difficult to decipher. Managing our health on a daily basis can be challenging, and when a chronic illness, like cancer, is introduced the complexity and amount of information thrown at patients is nearly impossible to comprehend.
It’s not just simply being able to read health literature, although 5% of the U.S. population struggles with overall illiteracy. It also means simply having access to good health care. Additionally, a patient must be able to critically think about the information presented, evaluate options, make decisions about treatment and affordability, and communicate with health care providers. Self-advocacy is also critical because patients must take responsibility for their own care. However, this is nearly impossible if they cannot access or understand important health information.
Further, when we add factors like socioeconomic status, education level, age, cultural background, race and ethnicity, and geographic location among other factors, health literacy becomes vitally important (and challenging).
Why is this so important?
Most of us aren’t physicians or scientists. At some point, we will each be presented with information about our health that is difficult to understand. Further, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), approximately 36% of adults in the U.S. have limited health literacy, 22% have basic health literacy, and 14% have below basic health literacy. Currently only 12% of the population has a proficient health literacy level. That means that out of approximately 300 million Americans, only 36 million of us are ready, right now, to access, understand, and communicate with our health care professionals in a way that promote our best health outcomes.
How can we fix it?
One piece of good news is that the American healthcare system is evolving to be more “patient-centered” and outcomes driven. It’s not OK for a physician to bombard patients with medical terms and scientific information and then leave them to fend for themselves. If patients don’t have access to information that is understandable to them, chances are their health outcomes won’t be great. This means additional visits to their physician or hospital which drive up costs and clog up an already busy system. Even more importantly, 88% of us won’t receive the proper care and treatment because we may not know the right questions to ask or the next steps to take.
There are organizations and tools to help. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the National Institutes of Health provide a variety of resources for health providers and patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer health literacy tools including the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. There are also professionals whose job is to help including social workers and patient navigators. In fact, if you are signing up for health care on a state exchange or in the federal marketplace, there are professionals on call to help you make your decisions. The most important component of health literacy is this: If you don’t understand, ask for clarification and for help. Your health depends on it.