By Wesley Gallagher
Taking care of your health used to be easy. You got sick, you called your doctor. You went to the doctor, they told you what to do. You did it, or maybe you didn’t. Rinse, repeat.
Nowadays, it goes more like this. You get sick, you go online, you Google your symptoms, read a few articles about what it might be, figure out which doctor you should see for this type of ailment, then you search for doctors in your area. Once you find one with good enough reviews, you call your insurance to make sure they are covered under your plan. You figure out how much you’ll have to pay for a visit, if they’ll tell you, and how much your insurance will cover. You go to the doctor, listen to what they say and go home and Google their advice. You call your insurance about the drug they’ve prescribed to see if it’s covered and where you can get it the cheapest. If it doesn’t make you better, you start to look for a new doctor. Maybe you’ll go the alternative medicine route this time. Maybe you’ll change your diet instead of taking that medicine. Maybe you’ll try essential oils. Maybe you’ll take up yoga.
This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but for many of us it doesn’t feel like it. Taking care of your health can be exhausting, confusing, and downright discouraging. With so many places to start, how can we ever know how to get where we need to go?
Health Literacy: What Is It and Why Is It Important?
As healthcare gets more complicated, it’s becoming even more important for individuals to take our health into our own hands. To do this, we need a certain amount of knowledge and skill to be able to navigate all of the information and options at our fingertips. In order to successfully care for our health, we need a basic level of health literacy.
According to Health.gov, health literacy is the ability for individuals to obtain and understand the health information and services they need to make good decisions about their health.
Skills needed for health literacy include:
• communication skills
• simple literacy skills
• numeracy skills
• general knowledge of health topics
That sounds easy enough, but while the importance of health literacy is greater than ever, US Department of Health and Human Services research shows that only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy. This means that the vast majority of people don’t have the skills they need to adequately take care of their own health in a time when it has never been more necessary.
Health literacy can affect individuals’ ability to navigate the healthcare system and take care of daily health needs. It can impact everything from managing a chronic disease with necessary doctors’ visits and medication to maintaining optimal health through following the latest dietary and health recommendations. Today’s information age has its benefits, but the wealth of information at our fingertips can be overwhelming, not to mention incorrect and outdated if coming from the wrong sources. We need health literacy to sort through all of this information and make informed decisions about our health.
Low health literacy has been linked to less frequent use of preventive care such as regular doctor visits, and higher rates of emergency care and hospitalization. This not only leads to poorer health outcomes, but it also translates into higher healthcare costs. Individuals with low health literacy are also more likely to report their health as poor.
So what can we do to improve health literacy?
How to Become More Health Literate
While much of the necessary change should come from healthcare providers and policymakers, there are proactive steps you can take as an individual to become more health literate.
Find the right provider. The first step to improving health literacy is finding a provider you trust. Find someone who communicates well to you and with whom you feel like you can communicate.
Ask questions. Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy, former director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, puts this recommendation at the top of her list of suggestions. The key to understanding what your doctor tells you is to ask questions, and to make sure you understand the answers. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to repeat instructions or explain something they are doing.
Repeat information back to your provider. When your provider gives you instructions, make sure you fully understand them by repeating them back to the provider. That way you can be sure you understand exactly what they are saying, and the doctor can be sure you know what to do once you leave their office.
Come prepared. Bring all of your medicines and supplements with you to the doctor and have them review them with you. It’s important for both you and your healthcare provider to understand everything you’re taking and to ensure that there are no improper dosages or combinations. Make sure you know your health history as well — consider having it all together in a file you bring to all appointments. Previous diagnoses and family history can play a big part in healthcare decisions, so it’s important for you and your provider to have as much of that information as possible.
Bring a friend. Especially if you expect to receive important information from your doctor, bring someone with you to the appointment. That way, you have another person who has heard the doctor’s instructions and can make sure you come away with the correct information.
Ask for an interpreter. Don’t be afraid to ask for an interpreter if English isn’t your first language. They should be able to provide an interpreter at no cost to you. This will ensure nothing is lost in translation.
Write things down. Take notes at your appointment and consider making a pill card to help you keep track of all of your medications and dosages.
Health Literacy and Mental Health
Health literacy is just as important when it comes to your mental health, and perhaps even more important since mental health is still often undervalued and misunderstood.
Mental health literacy could be defined similarly to health literacy, in terms of understanding how to obtain and maintain positive mental health. But according to the National Institutes of Health, another aspect of mental health literacy is gaining knowledge of mental health disorders and treatment possibilities in order to decrease the stigma related to mental disorders. Our culture is slowly coming to understand mental health as something that is just as important as physical health, but many disorders are still misunderstood, and many people don’t see things like depression and anxiety as something that necessitates professional treatment or medical attention.
Fear and lack of understanding can keep us from taking our mental health seriously and keep people from getting the help they need for real mental health disorders. It’s important that we not trivialize real disorders by joking about being “so OCD” or “acting bipolar” and realize that diminishing the reality of mental health is not only disrespectful but potentially dangerous. If people think what they are going through is simply a quirk or a way of acting that they should be able to change on their own, they may not seek the help they need to get well. It’s important that we are aware of the way we treat and talk about mental health.
If you feel like you’re not receiving adequate care for your physical and mental health needs, take matters into your own hands. It’s your health — no one will ever care about it as much as you do. Hopefully, this advice will get you started on the road to better health literacy and better health.