We live in a time when healthcare can be confusing and complicated even to the most educated people. It’s more important now than ever to understand your health. You might think health literacy doesn’t matter, because after all, isn’t it your doctor’s job to make healthcare decisions for you? The truth is healthcare decisions need to be collaborative. And if there are barriers to communication, that collaborative ability breaks down.
So what is health literacy? Simply put, it is how we receive, interpret and act on health information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines health literacy as an individual’s ability to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. It is the use of a wide range of skills that improve the ability of people to act on information to live healthier lives. These skills include reading, writing, listening, speaking, numeracy and critical analysis, as well as communication and interaction skills.
How to Improve Your Health Literacy
The reality is that everyone needs health literacy skills to successfully find and access care, prevent certain health conditions, effectively manage those that occur, communicate their needs, understand their choices and make informed decisions. Here are some easy ways to help build your health literacy and become a better patient and health advocate for yourself.
Technology. Web-based apps and patient portals can play an important role. Individuals can use mobile apps to track their heart health, create exercise routines and plans, establish meal plans, understand nutrition, and manage chronic conditions.
Some apps can even help patients track their sugar levels and heart rates. Individuals can also improve their health literacy by using online resources such as electronic health records, patient portals, and telemedicine options to access results from tests and treatment plans.
World Wide Web. Using the Internet to find reliable health information can be overwhelming. Knowing which sites are reliable and credible is important. As a general rule, health websites sponsored by government agencies, large professional organizations, and well-known medical schools are good sources of health information.
Ask questions. And make sure you get the answers to those questions. If you don’t understand something, ask your health care provider for more information. Ask questions like: Why are you ordering this test? Why are you prescribing this medication? What side effects can it cause?
Write it down. Communication is the key to unlocking health literacy. To make that easier, write down any questions or concerns ahead of the appointment. Record the appointment or take notes so you can easily refer back to the instructions.
Repeat. Doctor visits are quick and come with a ton of info. After your health care provider gives you directions, repeat those instructions in your own words. Say, “Let me see if I understand this.” This gives you a chance to clarify information and make sure you receive clear communication.
Be your own pharmacist. Bring all your medicines to your appointment. Ask your healthcare provider to review all over-the-counter and prescription medicines, supplements, vitamins and herbal medicines.
Tell the truth. It’s not easy to own up to bad health habits like how often you drink or exercise. But you can’t be diagnosed or treated effectively and properly if you don’t tell the truth. Your health care provider needs accurate info to help you make smart decisions. So, ‘fess up. If you’re not comfortable enough with your health care provider to share your secrets, find a new one with whom you can be open and honest.
Bring someone with you. Taking a friend or relative to an appointment might be an especially good idea when you expect to receive important information or news. They can take notes to help you remember everything later.
Know your medical history. Your healthcare provider should have your medical records available, but they may not be complete, especially if you have switched providers or seen a specialist. The more you know about your health history the better you can participate in your care. The same goes for your family. You should be able to answer questions about anyone who’s had a serious health issue in your immediate family.
Even if you feel that visits are stressful, time-consuming or a hassle, make the most of them. Health literacy skills allow patients to take control of their well-being by making smart healthcare choices, improving communication with doctors and giving them the information needed to advocate for themselves. Still have questions? Ask your primary care provider on your next visit.
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