October: Health Literacy Month

By Brenna Miller

The leaves are falling, the air is cool and crisp, and the smell of apple cider donuts is in the air. October is in full swing. As we embark on the range of fall holidays before us, we are also closing in on the end of a very important month: Health Literacy Month!

Health literacy is defined as the ability to obtain, communicate, and comprehend basic health information and services in order to inform health care decisions. According to the CDC, health literacy can occur at both the personal and organizational levels. Individuals should be able to find, understand, and use health care information and organizations should equitably enable and support this process. Health care can be tough to navigate, and health literacy focuses on not only the ability to access information but also to use it effectively.

Common reasons for low health literacy can include cultural barriers, limited English proficiency, and low educational levels, though they are not the only causes. Even individuals with strong reading, writing, and numbers skills can struggle to understand what’s happening and weighing the options; health literacy requires contextual knowledge that may not always be easy for the non-health care professional to comprehend. This is crucial as studies point to the link between low health literacy and increased hospitalizations, increased emergency care use, and decreased medication adherence.

Health literacy impacts all steps in the typical medical check-up—locating a provider, filling out complex health history forms, knowing what to tell a provider during the visit, understanding medical guidance, and interpreting directions on prescriptions—every part of a health care interaction. Not only does it diminish health outcomes, low health literacy also has a significant economic impact with the estimated cost of up to $238 billion annually.

Providers can help by using simple language and reducing technical terminology, offering information in non-English languages, using universal symbols and medication bottle colors, and asking open-ended questions. The CDC advises all health information follow “The Three A’s”: accuracy, accessibility, and actionability. Emphasizing the main take home points may also be helpful, especially when working with older adults who may experience confusion or forgetfulness.

Given the current status of our mask-wearing, handwashing, mid-COVID world, health literacy must be a top priority. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has declared increasing health literacy of the population as a Healthy People 2030 Objective, indicating a concerted effort to decrease confusion and poor communication between patients and providers. Providers interested in learning more about health literacy can take courses through the CDC or through professional development programs at universities, like Tufts University School of Medicine.

Let’s continue the enthusiasm for effective communication in health care settings beyond this Health Literacy Month!

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