Health literacy skills help us live healthy lifestyles and make informed health decisions; however, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills. Read on to get the facts on health literacy and how you can talk to your doctors and care team to improve your literacy level.

What is health literacy?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”

Having strong health literacy skills enables you to:

  • find accurate information about your health conditions
  • communicate changes in your health to your care team
  • answer questions about your conditions
  • understand your treatment options
  • follow your care team’s instructions

Those with strong health literacy skills are also more capable of navigating the healthcare insurance system and taking advantage of preventative health services.

Health literacy skills are boosted by having strong literacy skills and basic math skills. This helps complete tasks like understanding nutrition labels, calculating blood sugar levels, reading prescription labels and understanding insurance co-pays.

Risk factors for low health literacy

There are several risk factors for low levels of health literacy, including education level, language, culture, access to resources and age. Older people, racial and ethnic minorities, those who didn’t finish high school, low-income individuals, non-native English speakers and those in poor health are most likely to have low health literacy.

It is important to point out that someone may have a high level of health literacy overall but have literacy issues with specific topics. For example, they may be presented with a condition or body part they don’t understand; they could be diagnosed with a serious condition that is emotionally devastating, or they may have to compare complex statistics about the risks and benefits of a treatment.

Seven steps to improve your health literacy

1. Keep a list of questions and ask them!

Maintain a running list of questions and concerns you want to discuss with your doctor at appointments. There is no such thing as a dumb question! Bring up any concerns about health conditions, drug interactions or anything else that has crossed your mind.

2. Bring a trusted person with you.

Bring a trusted friend or family member to your doctor’s appointments. This person can help you by taking notes or asking questions you may have yet to consider. If you are dealing with a severe illness or condition, this person can support you with difficult news or complicated treatment plans. If your person cannot physically attend, ask your care provider if they can participate via phone or video call.

3. Restate what your doctor told you.

Healthcare providers may give you a lot of information in a short time. To help you process this information, restate what your doctor said and repeat it back to them. Say, “I want to make sure I understand, you said…” or “Let me see if I understand this….” Your care provider can point out any gaps in your understanding.

4. Know your medical history and information.

Your doctors should have your medical records, but keeping them updated with any changes in your condition or that of your family is vital. Many diseases are hereditary, so it is essential that your care team knows your entire history. It is also important to share all medications and supplements that you are taking and all of your health care habits with your doctors. Don’t be afraid to share how often you drink or smoke and your exercise habits. While this may feel embarrassing in the moment, your team needs this information to provide the most effective care.

5. Ask for materials you can take home.

Not everyone learns best by listening to someone talk. If you learn best by looking at pictures or reading, ask your doctor for materials you can take home to help explain complex information or instructions. Some information may also be available in video format. Feel free to ask for information in the best format for you!

6. Request a translator.

If your doctors speak a language that isn’t your first language, you may need help understanding complicated medical terms. Some doctor’s offices offer translation services, but if yours doesn’t, bring a trusted person who can translate for you.

7. Don’t believe everything on the internet.

 There is much medical information on the internet; unfortunately, not all of it is accurate. Some sites exist to spread misinformation or sell medical products or supplements. When looking for medical advice or information online, visit reputable websites such as those run by government health agencies or reputable organizations. Some examples include the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Social media is especially fraught with medical misinformation; before taking medical information that you find on social media, check that you can verify the source of that information. Reputable scientists and healthcare professionals will have internet presences and credentials that you will be able to reference.

Addressing health literacy with your Maxim nurse

Your Maxim nurse is an integral part of your care team and can be instrumental in boosting your health literacy levels. They can help you understand the information you’ve received from your doctors and explain why you need specific treatments and medications. Because you often have more time with your nurse than you would with a doctor, you can discuss topics in detail with them. Keep in mind that your Maxim nurse is not a doctor and will not be able to change your treatment plan, but they may be able to provide you with some more insight. Tactics such as repeating the information you’ve heard from your nurse can help you understand what is going on with your care plan.

As your health literacy levels improve, you’ll feel more confident participating in your health care!

Maxim’s home care services are available to adult and pediatric patients with various illnesses and disabilities. Find out what services are available near you!